Mass Die-Off of West Coast Sealife: Fukushima Radiation … Or Something Else?

by WashingtonsBlog

What’s Causing the Unprecedented Weirdness In West Coast Ocean Life?
NBC Nightly News reports that a mass die-off of starfish up and down the West Coast of North America is puzzling scientists:

Brian Williams, anchor: Environmental officials in California say there’s been another highly troubling report about what’s going on in the Pacific.  Something is killing the starfish and they don’t know why. They have been dying in record numbers on the West Coast. […]
Pete Raimondi, marine biologist: It’s happened so rapidly that some species are just missing. […]
Miguel Almaguer, reporter: An epidemic affecting waters from Alaska to Southern California causing millions of starfish to fall apart and melt away. […] Two species that used to thrive here have now vanished. […]
Raimondi: I’ve had probably 100 emails thus far saying, ‘Well, what about Fukushima, because of radiation?’ We haven’t ruled that out yet, but we’re clearly not ruling that in.
AlmaguerThe mysterious disease has now spread to at least 10 species of starfish and is threatening more every day.
King5 news in Seattle reports that scientists have tested for radiation, and found none:

Mon Dec 02 17:19:19 PST 2013

More sea star species dying off

A respected sea star expert released a report showing a deadly disorder has spread to more species. view full article
It’s not just sea stars.
There have been widespread reports of mysterious injury to Alaskan seals.
The Alaska Dispatch reports:
Scores of dead and sick ringed seals — some with open wounds, unusual hair loss and internal ulcers — … began washing up in summer 2011 in Western Alaska.
Even today, a few seals continue to trickle ashore, biologists said. But the cause of the illness remains a mystery, despite an international effort to identify it. Some people believe radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in March 2011 is a factor. That’s never been proven. It hasn’t been disqualified, either.
A lack of radiation sampling in remote regions after the explosion means no one knows how much airborne radiation fell into the Bering Sea ice, or whether seals were in the vicinity of any fallout, said Doug Dasher, a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
If the seals did ingest radiation, much of it would have been excreted out of the body before the testing of the carcasses that occurred several months after the incident, he said. Such testing found radiation levels similar to those found in the mid 1990s.
St. Lawrence Island is “way too far north for the marine transport to occur right now,” Dasher said.
Still, for a community that harvests animals from the Bering Sea, its hard not to think about Fukushima, said Pungowiyi. He said he was getting ready to go seal hunting: Winds blowing in from the north have made for prime seal-hunting conditions.
“It’s always on the backs of our minds,” he said of the radiation.
More than a year ago, 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna tested in California waters were contaminated with radioactive cesium from Fukushima.
Bluefin tuna are a wide-ranging fish, which can swim back and forth between Japan and North America in a year:
news graphics 2005  607819a FDA Refuses to Test Fish for Radioactivity ... Government Pretends Radioactive Fish Is Safe

But what about other types of fish?

Sockeye salmon also have a range spanning all of the way from Japan to Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon:

Associated Press reports that both scientists and native elders in British Columbia say that sockeye numbers have plummeted:
Sockeye salmon returns plunge to historic lows.
Last month, [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] noted returns for the Skeena River sockeye run were dire.[Mel Kotyk, North Coast area director for the Department] said department scientists don’t know why the return numbers are so low….
“When they went out to sea they seemed to be very strong and healthy and in good numbers, so we think something happened in the ocean.”
We’ve never seen anything like this in all these years I’ve done this. I’ve asked the elders and they have never seen anything like this at all.” [said Chief Wilf Adam]
Vancouver News 1130 notes that Alaskan and Russian salmon stocks have crashed as well:
“The sockeye runs way up north in the Skeena are low. The [fish] out of Bristol Bay, Alaska is down 30 to 35 per cent over last year. Russia has got a limited number of fish in the market. They are down about 40 per cent over all their salmon fisheries.”
(Russia’s East Coast sits on the Sea of Japan.  Indeed, Japan is closer to Russia than to Korea.)
Alaska’s Juneau Empire newspaper writes:
We are concerned this hazardous material is hitching a ride on marine life and making its way to Alaska.
Currents of the world’s oceans are complex. But, generally speaking, two surface currents — one from the south, called the Kuroshio, and one from the north, called the Oyashio — meet just off the coast of Japan at about 40 degrees north latitude. The currents merge to form the North Pacific current and surge eastward. Fukushima lies at 37 degrees north latitude. Thousands of miles later, the currents hit an upwelling just off the western coast of the United States and split. One, the Alaska current, turns north up the coast toward British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. The other, the California current, turns south and heads down the western seaboard of the U.S.
The migration patterns of Pacific salmon should also be taken into consideration. In a nutshell, our salmon ride the Alaska current and follow its curve past Sitka, Yakutat, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. Most often, it’s the chinook, coho and sockeye salmon migration patterns that range farthest. Chum and pink salmon seem to stay closer to home. Regardless of how far out each salmon species ventures into the Pacific, each fish hitches a ride back to its home rivers and spawning grounds on the North Pacific current, the same one pulling the nuclear waste eastward.
We all know too much exposure to nuclear waste can cause cancer. And many understand that certain chemicals, such as cesium-137 and strontium-9, contained in said waste products can accumulate in fish by being deposited in bones and muscle permanently.
We are concerned our Alaska salmon are being slowly tainted with nuclear waste. We are worried about the impact this waste could have on our resources, and especially the people who consume them.
We urge scientists in Alaska to be proactive about conducting research and monitoring our salmon species.
Similarly, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that salmon are migrating through the radioactive plume, but Canadian authorities aren’t testing the fish:
[Award-winning physician and preventative health expert Dr. Erica Frank, MD, MPH]: There are Pacific wild salmon that migrate through the radioactive plumes that have been coming off of Fukushima. Then those fish come back to our shores and we catch them.

CBC Reporter:  The Canada Food Inspection Agency says it now relies on Japan for test results concerning radiation.

(American authorities aren’t testing fish for radioactivity either.)
Another example – pacific herring – is even more dramatic.   Pacific herring is wide-ranging fish, spanning all the way from Japan to Southern California:
Every single pacific herring examined by a biologist in Canada was found to be hemorrhaging blood.  As ENENews reports:

6a0120a56ab882970c01901ec0aba1970b-800wi [Photo credits Alexandra Morton and Vancouver 24 hrs.]

The Globe and Mail, Aug 13, 2013 (Emphasis Added): Independent fisheries scientistAlexandra Morton is raising concerns about a disease she says is spreading through Pacific herring causing fish to hemorrhage. […] “Two days ago I did a beach seine on Malcolm Island [near Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island] and I got approximately 100 of these little herring and they were not only bleeding from their fins, but their bellies, their chins, their eyeballs.  […] “It was 100 per cent … I couldn’t find any that weren’t bleeding to some degree. And they wereschooling with young sockeye [salmon]
Sun News, Aug 12, 2013: [Morton] dragged up several hundred of the fish this past weekend and found the apparent infection had spread – instead of their usual silver colour the fish had eyes, tails, underbellies, gills and faces plastered with the sickly red colour. “I have never seen fish that looked this bad,” […] In June, the affected fish were only found in eastern Johnstone Strait, but have since spread to Alert Bay and Sointula, she said., Aug 16, 2013: Morton […] pulled up a net of about 100 herring near Sointula and found they were all bleeding. “It was pretty shocking to see,” said Morton […] Herring school with small sockeye salmon and are also eaten by chinook and coho.
‘Response’ from Canadian Government
Vancouver 24 hrs, Aug 11, 2013: [Morton] says Fisheries and Oceans Canada [FOC] isignoring the problem. […] According to emails from FOC, the federal authority had asked the marine biologist to send in 20 to 30 herring in September 2011, saying that would be “more than sufficient for the lab to look for clinical signs of disease and provide sufficient diagnostics.” She did, and hasn’t heard back since. […] FOC officials did not respond to a request for comment by the 24 hours presstime., Aug 16, 2013: Fisheries and Oceans Canada is trying to confirm reports from an independent biologist that herring around northern Vancouver Island have a disease that is causing bleeding from their gills, bellies and eyeballs. […] Arlene Tompkins of DFO’s [Department of Fisheries and Oceans’] salmon assessment section said staff in the Port Hardy area have not found bleeding herring. “We are trying to retrieve samples, but [Monday] we were not successful because of heavy fog,” she said. “We haven’t had any other reports of fish kills or die-offs [see salmon report below].” Tompkins has seen photographs provided by Morton […]

And see this report from CBS’ The Doctors:

There have been many other reports of mysterious sickness among West Coast North American sealife … such as dead and dying sea lions.  Sea lions’ main food is herring:
Sea lions will eat a lot of different prey items: octopus, squid, small sharks. But their bread and butter is herring ….
Given that pacific herring are suffering severe disease, it is worth asking whether the “unusual mortality event” among Southern California sea lions is connected.

CBC reports:

There’s something very odd happening in the ocean and in the waters around B.C. — sea creatures are behaving strangely. And species are turning up where they are rarely seen.
Extraordinary marine activity…. From California all the way to Alaska.
Others point to disasters like Japan’s tsunami that triggered a nuclear crisis, but no one knows for sure.
And the Newcastle Herald carried a report in October from a sailor saying that “the ocean is broken”:
The next leg of the long voyage was from Osaka to San Francisco and for most of that trip the desolation was tinged with nauseous horror and a degree of fear.
“After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” [Newcastle, Australia yachtsman Ivan] Macfadyen said.
“We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.
“I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.”
In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes. [There is a huge quantity of debris from Japan heading across the ocean towards the West Coast. But it is unclear whether the sailor is referring to this or something else. After all, there is a lot of man-made garbage floating around the Pacific.]
And something else. The boat’s vivid yellow paint job, never faded by sun or sea in years gone past, reacted with something in the water off Japan, losing its sheen in a strange and unprecedented way.
Some – like EneNews – are convinced that the damage to sealife is due to Fukushima*. And – without doubt – the West Coast is being hit by radiation from Fukushima. And governments always cover up the extent of nuclear and other disasters for which they were partially responsible.
On the other hand, the New York Times report that it is an abundance of anchovies near shore which are attracting the whales … and the anchovies may simply be attracted by unusually nutrient-rich waters this year:

Others theorize that ocean acidification might be the culprit. It could instead be a pathogen, although it is unlikely it would effect so many species all at once over such a wide area.
EneNews rounds up stories on unusual sealife behavior:
Vancouver Sun, Nov. 27, 2013: Michael Harris, executive-director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association […] said he’s been working in Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia for 30 years and has “never ever seen this kind of behaviour going on. They must sense this is a safe place to be.” […] Wild Whales Vancouver had up to 10 close encounters this season in the southern Strait of Georgia, mainly near Galiano Island […] The whales typically rolled on their backs and sides next to the boat and looked up at the passengers. One even placed its head on the boat while spyhopping, a behaviour in which the whale rises up vertically to look above the water […]
Global News, Nov. 27, 2013: Capt. Jim Maya […] who runs Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, has been working on the waters of the Pacific since 1965 and says he has never seen anything like what they saw that day. […] Maya says he estimates the whale was about 35 to 40 feet long and was an immature female. She hung around the boat for about an hour […] Chad Nordstrom, a researcher with the Cetacean Research Lab at the Vancouver Aquarium, says they have been receiving more and more reports of humpback whale sightings along the B.C. coast, especially in the lower Strait of Georgia.
Vancouver Sun, Nov. 28, 2013: Andrea Hardaker, manager of Wild Whales Vancouver [said] “The passengers loved it. But they don’t know what to expect on the trip. Whatever they see they think is normal. For our guides and the captains, we know it isn’t normal.” […] [Hardaker] believes these are the first such reports in local waters.
See also: CBS News: 100s of whales in bay on California coast; It’s never been like this, we just can’t even believe it — Experts: We just aren’t sure what’s going on; “A once-in-a-lifetime chance… unheard of, it’s unbelievable, nobody’s seen this” (VIDEO)
And here:
Baldo Marinovic, research biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz: “It’s a very strange year […] The $64,000 question is why this year? […] Now [the anchovies are] all kind of concentrating on the coast.”
Just a few weeks ago similar sightings were reported along Canada’s Pacific coast:
Vancouver Sun, Nov. 6, 2013: An extraordinary string of recent whale encounters around Vancouver Island is likely due to luck, not one factor, experts say. “This has not been a typical year,” said John Ford, head of the cetacean research program at Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. […] The “biggie” of the bunch is the endangered North Pacific right whale, spotted twice in B.C. waters for the first time in 60 years. […] There have been other remarkable whale encounters […]  passengers aboard the B.C. ferry between Galiano Island and Tsawwassen were treated to the sight of a superpod of about 1,000 Pacific white-sided dolphins […]
Nick Claxton, Indigenous academic adviser at the University of Victoria: Recent whale encounters could have a deeper meaning, according to an Indigenous worldview […] “We see them as our relatives, as ancestors. All of these occurrences remind us of our place here and our connection to the natural world. It’s for the better of all of us to listen.”
The bottom line is that more research is needed.   And nuclear experts said 4 days after the Japanese earthquake and that we all need to demand that fish be tested for radiation.
Note:  University of Washington Professor Trevor Branch has previously slammed our reporting on reduction in fish stocks:
I am surprised that an article composed of facts totally unrelated to Fukushima could make it past your editorial process, and the story has been widely derided by blogs and on twitter. Below is my response detailing the latest science, with the article attached in case you are unable to find it.
The scientists you quote repeated their own study on Pacific bluefin tuna in the US and Fukushima radiation testing in June 2013. Here are some highlights from their findings.
1. Radiation in bluefin from Fukushima is 1/1000 to 1/10000 of the radiation in natural seawater.
2. Radiation in bluefin from Fukushima is less than in food you eat every day that is uncontaminated (and much much less than x-rays, flying in a plane etc).
3. If 10,000,000 people each ate 124 kg per yr of bluefin tuna every year (which is a LOT), 2 might die from radiation.
4. However, global catch of Pacific bluefin is 20,000 t a year, allowing only 161,000 people to eat that much, resulting in only 0.03 extra deaths per year.
5. If they ate less, the risk would be much less.
6. Since a single Pacific bluefin tuna sold this year for $1.8 million, they would also be left in poverty. (Not all sell for that much, I know.)
Now the salmon and herring in U.S. waters do not travel anywhere near Fukushima, and would have a radiation load thousands to millions of times lower. These fish have local populations and are quite distinct from those populations near Fukushima. Radiation from Fukushima is diluted very rapidly within a few km of the leaks (the volume of the ocean is vast), and further than that the radiation is less than the radiation from naturally occurring polonium in the ocean.
All of the scary stories compiled in the article are just that, scary stories completely unrelated to Fukushima. For example the quotes from Morton are specifically about disease in fish that has nothing to do with radiation.
To preserve the integrity of your news blog, I would suggest retracting the article.
We responded at the time:
While we respect Professor Branch’s expertise in fisheries science – his knowledge of fisheries is significantly greater than ours, and he has proven that he is an honestacademic by disclosing his funding sources to us upon request – we believe that he has made several erroneous assumptions.  Specifically:
1. There won’t be nearly as much dilution as assumed.
2.  Low-level radiation is not harmless, there was no background cesium radiation until recently, and our bodies have adapted to excrete radiation from sources such as bananas … but not cesium from fish.
In any event, this post does not argue that the injury to sealife is due to Fukushima … we honestly don’t know the cause or causes of the unusual behavior in ocean life, and are only certain of one thing:  the U.S. and Canadian governments should fund extensive testing to figure out what’s really going on, and then publicly release the results.
* EneNews was the main source of information for this essay. For example, here’s a one-sentence round-up of ocean weirdness from EneNews:
There have been several similar reports about wildlife around the Pacific, includingsardinessealssea lionspolar bearssea starsturtlessalmonherringcoral and more.