Oregon Coastal Ecologies: Where Human Meets Nature

While you’re out enjoying all the wonderful landscapes and life forms along the coast, you might realize that nature isn’t always that natural, that we humans actually have an affect on it. Philosopher Timothy Morton compared this ecological entanglement to a Möbius strip: what appears to be two parallel lines with humans on one side and nature on the other, is really a single never ending loop. Here are some situations along Oregon’s coast where we are definitely in the loop.

Marine Reserves
First, some good news. Oregon has six National Wildlife Refuges along its coast. The closest to Corvallis is Siletz Bay, just south of Lincoln City. The Oregon Islands dot places along the whole coast. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these refuges include vital nesting places of over 1 million seabirds including puffins, murres, and cormorants. Additionally, the restoration of saltmarshes in these areas help support salmon populations.

Another benefit to maintaining protected areas along the coast is that it helps to mitigate climate change. 

Oregon State University’s Jane Lubchenco, who co-authored a recent study on coastal refuges said, “Marine reserves cannot halt or completely offset the growing impacts of climate change. But they can make marine ecosystems more resilient to changes and, in some cases, help slow down the rate of climate change.” 

They do so by creating areas protected against ocean acidification and biodiversity loss while maintaining coastal wetland that can mitigate rising sea levels. 

Mysterious Sea Pickles that Glow
Now for something a little more eerie. Warm waters along the coast during the past few years linked to climate change are likely the cause of an unprecedented number of glowing sea pickles, also called pyrosomes, or fire bodies, appearing along the Oregon coast this summer. In Alaska, they have been thick enough to interfere with commercial fishing. 

Ranging from a few inches to many feet, pyrosomes are colonies of small animals that form a larger bioluminescent and translucent body. Though they do appear occasionally in cooler waters in small numbers, pyrosomes are native to tropical zones much further south than Oregon. The coast had seen higher than normal sea temperatures since 2014, but that has returned to near normal this year. The glowing sea pickles may just be a holdover from these previously warmer years. 

Still, as Jennifer Fischer at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center told OPB, “Why they’re here now is unknown at this point.”

Fracked Gas Pipeline for Southern Oregon?
Coos Bay could become the home of the first liquefied natural gas terminal on the West Coast. The Jordan Cove Energy Project of the Canadian oil and gas company Veresen, would cool and prepare for shipping to Asia fracked natural gas transferred via pipeline from the Rocky Mountains. The final leg of the pipeline would go under five different rivers, including the Klamath.  

Fracking has been linked to the pollution of drinking water, the release of climate change inducing methane, and earthquakes. But those things are a distant thought for many involved since the terminal could revive some of Coos Bay’s former economic glory as a shipping hub. Coos County residents recently rejected a measure to keep Veresen out. Opponents of the measure raised $612,500 with $567,500 coming from Veresen. Supporters raised $13,500. Don Althoff, CEO of Veresen, recently visited the White House and was assured that previous regulations holding up the terminal would no longer be a problem.

The Long Decline of Puffins
Puffins nest in two primary spots in Oregon, up north at Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock or down south at Face Rock in Bandon. Puffin watching season began in May, but newly hatched puffins will still be testing out their wings through August. If you want to see them, be sure to bring binoculars, since you won’t be able to get very close. 

Seemingly rare now, tufted puffins were once common along the Pacific Northwest coast. According to the Audubon Society, they were Washington’s most common seabird with numbers around 25,000 at the beginning of the 1900s. Long viewed by fishermen as adversary, tens of thousands of puffins a year would get caught up in fishing nets. Due to decreasing numbers, puffins began abandoning their nesting sites in the 1990s. Two years ago, Washington placed puffins on the state’s endangered species list with only 2,958 birds counted. Oregon does not list puffins as an endangered species, nor a species of concern. 

Scientists now use the puffin’s ecological relationships to monitor ocean environments. 

According to a report by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Feeding high on the food chain and breeding in dense colonies, they provide a visible and highly sensitive means for gauging a range of trends, from plankton productivity to ocean warming to climate change.”

It would seem that Puffins too are on the loop.

By Andy Hahn