Dead and dying sea mammals continue to wash ashore at unusual and alarming rates along the California coast. Scientists are stumped, suggesting that the cause may be food shortages caused by abnormally warm waters - but unsure of what has caused the ocean off the California coast to warm so rapidly.
Meanwhile, the radioactive plume released into the Pacific Ocean following the Fukushima nuclear disaster draws ever closer to North America's western coast. At the same time, radioactive material is still pouring into the sea from the Fukushima site. Could the ongoing radioactive poisoning of the Pacific and the dying of its marine mammals be related?
Whales, dolphins now affectedOn July 6, San Francisco news outlets reported the discovery of a large dead dolphin that had washed ashore at nearby Ocean Beach. While one death might not be particularly unusual, a dead sea lion pup and a dead adult elephant seal were also found washed up at the same beach, on the same day.
In the few months prior, numerous dead whales had washed up along the nearby coast.
At the same time, literally thousands of dead and dying sea lions have been beaching themselves from San Francisco to San Diego. In the first three months of the year, more than 1,800 sea lions - many of them starving and sickly juveniles - were found on beaches or in coastal back yards. More than a thousand of these sea lions beached themselves in March alone.
"You could equate it to a war zone," said Keith Matassa of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
Three of five years since 2011 - the year of the Fukushima disaster - have seen abnormally high numbers of sea lion strandings.
Mainstream scientists are not pointing the finger at radiation, however. Instead, they suspect that marine mammals are dying due to a food shortage caused by abnormally warm ocean temperatures. And they may have a point: Temperatures between San Francisco and Monterey are an astonishing 5 degrees warmer than normal for the time of year.
A third of the world poisoned?Scientists do not know why the waters are so warm, and have not studied a possible contribution from the massive amount of radioactive material from the Fukushima disaster that is predicted to slam into the California coast some time in 2017. Without such a study, any connection may have to remain speculative.
What is certain, however, is that the massive release of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean is likely to have dire ecological consequences.
"Every day, four hundred tons of highly radioactive water pours into the Pacific and heads towards the U.S.," renowned physician and anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott warned in September 2014. "Because the radiation accumulates in fish, we get that too. The U.S. government is not testing the water, not testing the fish, and not testing the ambient air. Also, people in Japan are eating radiation every day."
Asian Pacific governments are also taking the threat seriously. In 2011, 19 Pacific member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency launched a study into the possible effects of Fukushima radioactive releases on the region.
"Following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on 11 March 2011 and their subsequent impact on the nuclear reactors and associated fuel storage ponds at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, there have been releases of radioactively contaminated water into the marine environment neighboring the north east coast of the island of Honshu," the project document reads. "It is assumed that this radioactive contamination could be transported and circulated through the Pacific Ocean. Consequently ... member states have expressed concern about the possible impact of these releases on their coastal zones."
"The area potentially affected may encompass much of the Pacific Ocean, which covers one third of the area of the globe," the document warns.