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'All our crabs were dead': Oregon's hypoxia hazard

{p}Changes in the ocean have had an impact on crab. "We went out to run our crab pots one late spring and found all our crabs were dead,” Al Pazar recalled of one recent late spring. The culprit: Hypoxia. (SBG){/p}

Changes in the ocean have had an impact on crab. "We went out to run our crab pots one late spring and found all our crabs were dead,” Al Pazar recalled of one recent late spring. The culprit: Hypoxia. (SBG)

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NEWPORT, Ore. - Al Pazar harvests crab on the Oregon Coast.

“It’s been good to me. I raised kids, put them through college, had a good life,” he said.

But changes in the ocean have had an impact on crab.

"We went out to run our crab pots one late spring and found all our crabs were dead,” he said.

The culprit: Hypoxia.

Hypoxia is a seasonal occurrence along the West Coast where areas of ocean surface water have little to no oxygen, creating an environment where fish and crustaceans cannot survive.

Due to changing ocean waters caused by climate change, hypoxia has the potential to crash Oregon’s crab and halibut fishing industries.

“Since the 2000s it seems like the hypoxia events have been much more large, and much more frequent, and they seem to linger longer,” Pazar said. “I didn’t fish last summer, but the guys who did saw crabs affected from below Coos Bay, even down as far as Brookings, all the way up to the Washington coast this year. Which is unprecedented in size.”

The new "hypoxia season" - which begins in late spring and runs through September - is a new obstacle for the fishing industry.

And as time moves forward, each season appears to be worse than the year before.

“2018 was actually one of the worst years we’ve had for, what we call, severe hypoxia,” said Jack Barth, Executive Director of Marine Studies Initiative at Oregon State University.

Barth and Al Pazar, are council members on the Oregon Coordinating Council on Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia.

Created with the passage of Oregon Senate Bill 1039 in 2017, the OAH Council’s goal is to provide recommendations and guidance to the state on how to respond to hypoxia and ocean acidification.

“We looked at all the different was we need to think about Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia. From making measurements in the ocean, to figuring out how to make our marine ecosystems handle it better,” Barth said.

The battle against Hypoxia is all about information. Mapping Oregon’s coast to find areas where hypoxia is most prevalent.

“We’re trying to map that now,” Barth said. “Our thinking is that we can find places that are going to be just fine, and be resilient to these impacts. Other places are going to get hit hard and we may not be able to do anything about it. So 10 or 15 years from now that’s just going to be a bad spot.”

Knowing where hypoxia occurs and where it doesn’t is key to keeping Oregon’s fishermen in business. Showing the industry areas to fish and areas to stay away.

“Fishermen are more engaged, they’ve got skin in the game," Pazar said. “They want to help accumulate meaningful and accurate data that scientists can use and managers can build into their regulations and management schemes.”

Pazar is coordinating with fishermen to place sensors on their boats, crab pots, and trolling gear. The goal to fill in missing data in Oregon’s waters.

“We’re miniaturizing some of these devices,” he says. “This project should help fill some of those gaps, and demonstrate our willingness to work with them.”

The OAH council submitted a report to the Oregon Legislature in September of 2018. In it is their recommendations for combating hypoxia and ocean acidification.

Their recommendations include a public awareness campaign.

“We need to get the word out about this,” says Barth. “This is something happening now, to our ocean, and we need to get everybody aware of it and interested in it.”

Barth believes an interest in the problem will motivate society to take action. Primarily in methods to combat climate change.

“Climate change comes into this in a couple different ways,” he says. “First thing we know for sure is that the excess heat in the atmosphere is heating up the ocean.”

A warm layer of water on the ocean slows down the exchange of shallow—oxygen rich—layers of the ocean with the deep—oxygen deficient—layers.

“As far as ocean acidification,” said Barth. “We know the carbon dioxide we are all putting into the atmosphere is going into the ocean, acidifying the water, and harming the organism. So there’s a couple very direct links from what we’re doing in the atmosphere to what’s happing in the ocean.”

As ocean waters warms, Pazar believes hypoxia and ocean acidification will worsen. “Even slight temperatures changes, even a few tenths of a degree, make a big difference,” he said.

Pazar speculates a year with little crab or halibut harvest is possible.

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“That would cause a huge disrupting to the tune of tens, maybe a hundred million dollars on the coastal strip here in Oregon,” he said. “The buzzword is sustainable. We want a good harvest on a sustainable species, whatever we might be engaged in, so it’s there for tomorrow."

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