Summer, winter, spring, fall, fire, drought, hypoxia seasons — Oregon has it all.

According to researchers at Oregon State University, ocean waters have in the past two decades experienced a steady decline in oxygen many researchers and those in the fishing industry believe might adversely affect Dungeness crabs and other shellfish.

To that end, a bill cosponsored by State Rep. David Brock Smith, D-Port Orford, hopes to declare an emergency to appropriate money to study the increasing effects of acidification and hypoxia — a lack of oxygen — in the ocean and the ramifications to sea life.

Senate Bill 260 would allocate $1.06 million from the general fund to the Oregon Ocean Science Trust starting in July to work with the Oregon Coordinating Council on Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia to address the issue.

The bill was last in the Ways and Means Committee.

The money proposed in SB 260 would go to study the effects of the acidification and hypoxia on ocean species and possibly extend that to mitigation and adaptation measures, the bill reads.

Specifically, shellfish and estuarine monitoring would receive $420,000, estuary mapping would get $50,000 and $270,000 would go to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to distribute to Oregon State University to support the programs and work of several marine science institutions.

“Oregon is an epicenter for the global manifestation of ocean acidification and hypoxia,” the bill reads, exacerbated by the natural upwelling of ocean water that takes corrosive water to shore and into estuaries.

It notes that ocean acidification, temperatures and hypoxia are intensifying and could dramatically affect the state’s marine fisheries, particularly shellfish.

From oceanographers

Oregon has experienced a decline in oxygen in Pacific Ocean waters near the seafloor to the extent that many scientists are saying there is now a “hypoxia season,” Oregon State University researchers said.

And 2018 was one of the worst years for low-oxygenated waters, beginning in early June and lasting through Labor Day.

“Low oxygen (levels are) striking a big swath of the West Coast and is returning year after year,” said Francis Chan, an Oregon State University ecologist. “So we’d better learn to live with it.”

Scientists define severe hypoxia as water that contains less than 0.5 milliliters of oxygen per liter of water. Last summer, a sensor on a mooring near Heceta Bank off the central Oregon coast documented hypoxic water last summer with oxygen levels reaching zero near the seafloor shortly thereafter. This coincided with reports of crabs dying.

The researchers say climate change is behind the emergence of hypoxia, though other factors contribute. Oceans worldwide are warming and thus losing their capacity to hold oxygen. As water moves closer to shore, it becomes even less oxygenated, the researchers said.

But the biggest culprit has been a shift in the wind patterns, researchers said.

Oregon’s ocean waters are fueled by upwellings, where southward winds mix the water and bring cold, nutrient-rich water from below, scientists said. That fuels phytoplankton blooms, which fertilize the food web, but also can suck the oxygen out of the water when they die and sink to the bottom.

“Historically, Oregon has had flip-flopping wind patterns in the summer so that after a week or two of strong upwelling, the winds abate or shift to the north,” said Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer who heads the university’s Marine Studies Initiative. “That allows the system to flush out and re-oxygenates the water. Over the past several years, though, that flushing hasn’t happened as frequently and the phytoplankton overwhelms the system and essentially chokes it.”

Last summer, Barth deployed a glider that traversed Oregon’s near-shore waters from Astoria to Coos Bay and measured the oxygen levels through the water column.

“One thing that surprised us was that the low oxygen wasn’t just at the seafloor, but in some places was present in a third to a half of the water column,” Barth said. “That has implications for other fisheries besides the bottom-dwelling crab and halibut.”

Other studies

Oregon State University last year received a four-year, $1.1 million grant last year from the NOAA Coastal Hypoxia Research Program to work with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, crabbers and other fishermen to map and track the extent of the hypoxia, identify “hotspots” and potential refuge areas and develop models of when and where low oxygen will occur — and affect Dungeness crabs and fishes.

“Our ocean is changing and when we first measured hypoxia off Newport in 2002, we thought it might be a local phenomenon,” said Barth.

As part of the grant, OSU researchers will work with the crab industry over the next four years to deploy approximately 40 ‘dissolved oxygen’ sensors on crab pots from mid-spring until the crabbing season ends — usually in August, which is roughly the peak of hypoxia season.