Being Frank: Dead zones are a symptom of a warming planet

Being Frank is a column by Chairman Ed Johnstone of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. As a statement from the NWIFC chairman, the column represents the natural resources management concerns of the treaty tribes in western Washington.

As first stewards on the front lines of climate change, treaty tribes have been sounding the alarm for more than a decade about low oxygen levels in the ocean and the Salish Sea.

My mentor, former NWIFC Chairman Billy Frank Jr., testified about it in 2012 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“We have dead zones in Hood Canal, dead zones in South Puget Sound—where I live—where our salmon is migrating out to the ocean,” he said. “The ocean is important to all of us. It’s dying. Who the hell is in charge?”

It’s been more than 10 years since then and it still feels like no one is in charge. Billy was addressing the U.S. government, but climate change is a global problem that requires global leadership.

Dead zones are just one symptom of a warming planet. When wind blows surface water away from the coastline, deeper water upwells to the coastal shelf. Deep water already is lower in oxygen than the surface water, but warmer temperatures and increased nutrients drive the levels of dissolved oxygen so low that the water becomes hypoxic—suffocating marine life.

Warmer water also increases the growth of phytoplankton, which die and fall to the ocean floor, depleting oxygen as they decompose. Changes in timing, intensity and frequency of upwelling also prevent the deeper water from mixing with surface water, which is richer in oxygen.

None of the elders from the Quinault Indian Nation remember hearing about dead zones off the coast before 2006 when we discovered more than a mile and half of beach littered with dead fish of every species.

One of our fishermen was pulling crab pots north toward Taholah. He had live crab in his pots until he crossed the Moclips River. Then it was nothing but pot after pot of dead crab for 8 miles.

The 2006 hypoxic event lasted from June through October and affected more than 1,100 square miles along the Pacific coast from Washington to Oregon.

That was just the beginning. We saw more of these events in 2007, 2009 and 2011 along our beaches. In 2017, a water mass with low oxygen drove the halibut out of Quinault’s survey areas.

Our treaty rights are place-based. When climate change makes it impossible for fish and shellfish to survive in our traditional harvest areas, we lose those rights. We lose our livelihoods and the food that sustains us.

As salmon runs have declined over the past several decades, tribes have come to depend on Dungeness crab to support our economies, but dead zones threaten those fisheries. After the 2017 event, crab populations were diminished for the next three years.

Not only do we need to know when and where hypoxic events are happening, we also need to understand how low dissolved oxygen affects the ecosystem.

Quinault is partnering with Oregon State University and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to send robotic gliders to the sea floor to measure dissolved oxygen. And tribes—including Quinault—and nontreaty crabbers have taken action by attaching oxygen sensors to crab pots.

But we need to do more than monitor hypoxia. We need to address climate change on a global scale through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. We need to cut down our worldwide dependence on fossil fuels, remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reduce the amount of nutrients released into our oceans from agriculture and wastewater.

We’re seeing this decline of oxygen levels in oceans all over the world. As Billy said, the oceans are important to all of us. We need leadership and collective action to protect marine life from dead zones and to prevent climate change from making this crisis worse.

Above: A hypoxic event in 2006 led to the die-off of hundreds of fish of all species along coastal beaches. Photo: Quinault Indian Nation