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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, March 19, 2001

Hawai'i's Environment
Oceanic changes a mystery

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science and Environment Writer

The Pacific is undergoing a massive change, and scientists are struggling to get an accurate overall picture of it.

In the Hawaiian Islands since about 1998, Hawaiian monk seal pups have been fatter than they've been in the previous decade, but Laysan and black-footed albatrosses are having lower than usual reproductive success — lower than in many years.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, things are changing, too. Salmon fisheries are rebounding strongly in some parts of the North Pacific, but collapsing in others.

It is part of an oceanwide change, but until now, scientists have been like the blind men trying to describe an elephant: The guy at the trunk end figures an elephant is a snake, the guy at the tail end says it's like a broom, and so on.

At a meeting earlier this month at the East-West Center, a conference brought together many disciplines in an attempt to get an overall picture of what's going on.

The session had the ungainly title, "Impact of Climate Variability on Observation and Prediction of Ecosystem and Biodiversity Changes in the North Pacific." It was sponsored by the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, with the International Pacific Research Center, the University of Hawai'i and the Census of Marine Life (through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation).

"There are some interesting things in the Northeast Pacific, a very dramatic reversal in productivity, particularly for salmon, which are showing a sharp increase," said Jeffrey Polovina, fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. In contrast, a salmon fishery off Japan seems to be declining.

"I think this change, which we think started around 1998, is being documented around the Pacific, and it is an important change," Polovina said.

The conference brought together experts from Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States who study climate, ocean processes, and the various life forms of the Pacific, from phytoplankton to crabs and squid, and from migratory species like tuna to whales and seabirds.

"The intent is to accumulate information on a variety of animal and physical changes. It has not been possible before to put together an integrated statement," said Dick Beamish, a Canadian researcher with that nation's Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

One thing that is starting to be clear is that these are not repeated cycles, Beamish said. It is as if each new phase reshuffles the natural world and creates a new standard.

"I believe these changes represent reorganizations" rather than repetitions, he said.

Polovina said the processes involved are so complex that even with all the scientists working together, it will be years before the overall picture is well understood.

Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser's Kaua'i bureau chief, and its science and environment writer. You can call him at (808) 245-3074 or e-mail jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.