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Seasick: Corals, Kelp, and Critters

By Tom Osborne
By Tom Osborne

This past Sunday’s New York Times published the article “Climate-Related Death of Coral Around World Alarms Scientists.” Laguna does not have coral reefs, so what does this have to do with our small city? Plenty.

The climate-related ocean warming that is bleaching and killing once flourishing coral reefs across a swath of salt water from the Indian Ocean, spanning the Pacific, and reaching into the Gulf of Mexico is also imperiling kelp along Laguna’s coast and beyond. Marine biologist Dr. Jennifer Burnaford of Cal State Fullerton, whose kelp lecture at the Newport Back Bay Science Center my wife and I attended last week, said a warming ocean was largely responsible for the poor state of kelp at Shaw’s Cove and elsewhere along Southern California’s coast.

The combination of El Niño and climate change has brought warmer water to our tidelands, auguring a grim future for local kelp. Moreover, she added that the near disappearance of urchins, a danger to kelp, has not brought about the expected replenishment of the giant seaweed. Critters, too, especially sea lion pups, have been hard hit by the warming ocean, which has pushed the fish their lactating mothers must eat into more distant colder waters. Consequently, their underweight pups have been starving, reported the Pacific Marine Mammal Center last December.

For the past several years my wife and I have been traveling throughout the Pacific Basin on National Geographic expeditions, with their accompanying marine biologists, and we have seen up close the bleached coral and learned about the signs of reef health. While in the remote Line Islands they told us to take a picture in our minds of the reefs in which we snorkeled and which teemed with marine life, including sharks. These were virtually all that remained, they said, of the world’s once healthy reefs. And now, according to The Times article, scientists have found that even these reefs in the most remote parts of the Pacific are showing signs of bleaching and stress.

What can be done? El Nino is a natural, recurring phenomenon. That’s also true of climate change. But there’s a huge distinction. In addition to cyclical warming, due to human-caused green house gas emissions the earth and its oceans are getting steadily hotter. Besides endangering kelp, this is causing accelerating sea-rise and exacerbating ongoing problems of ocean acidification, while imperiling inhabited islands and America’s seacoasts with loss of homes, livelihoods, and the built environment. Think Hurricane Sandy in 2012, reportedly the second costliest event of its kind in U.S. history.

The threats that this anthropogenic warming poses to the kelp and furry critters along Laguna’s coast must be viewed within the larger context just referenced. What happens within our local waters is simply a microcosm of this larger picture. This gives us all the more reason to get involved with ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and clean up the Aliso Creek watershed, whose warming toxic run-off contributes to algae blooms and other unhealthy conditions. Imagine a restored estuary near the mouth of that creek. That would constitute a major step in caring for the receiving ocean.

What I and increasing numbers of others in town are calling for is making the health of our coast and ocean-feeding watercourses among the highest policy priorities for Laguna Beach. Our art, our economy, our culture have revolved around the sea. Our town’s official logo communicates this above all else.

Naturally, much more needs to be done to find solutions to the problems just identified. Maybe Laguna should join forces with our neighboring coastal cities to share information and strategies.

Meanwhile let’s attend Kelpfest 2016 this Saturday, April 16, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Main Beach to have fun while learning about what each of us can do to help restore ocean health.

 

Tom Osborne is at work on a book about Peter Douglas’s career with the California Coastal Commission.

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