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As oceans warm, the smallest organisms in the Bering Sea are losing fat and putting larger predators at risk

Zooplankton in the Bering Sea are getting skinny from lack of sea ice.
NOAA Fisheries
A new study shows zooplankton are getting skinny with lack of sea ice.

Zooplankton are small organisms like sea snails, jellyfish, and krill — and they are crucial to the Bering Sea’s ecosystem. New data from NOAA Fisheries indicate that one of the most common zooplankton isn't as fatty or abundant as it used to be.

Large, high-fat copepods – distantly related to shrimp and crab – are dwindling with the lack of sea ice from global warming. Meanwhile, smaller zooplankton are increasing in both numbers and range.

David Kimmel is a research oceanographer, and leader of the nearly two-decade study. He said Arctic fish, seabirds, and marine mammals are struggling to adjust to global warming while consuming less fatty foods.

“They can get skinny – which doesn't necessarily lead to mortality, but can make them more susceptible,” said Kimmel. “For example, not surviving in the winter if they don't have enough energy stores to make it through the winter.”

While less fat in the diet doesn’t necessarily lead to extinction, Kimmel said it could lead to smaller population sizes of common Bering Sea organisms, like king crab and harbor seals. It could also create an ecological shift in the sea.

“Organisms that are normally found to the south are moving northwards,” he said. “So communities that you might expect to exist at more southerly latitudes begin to become more prominent at more northerly latitudes.”

The Bering Sea is one of the most sensitive regions to global warming. Kimmel said knowing how the bottom of the food chain changes with warmer temperatures can help predict how ecosystems around the world will be affected by climate change later on.

“The people that live in Alaska at the frontline of this change are really the ones that are experiencing it,” Kimmel said. “And they're quite removed from a lot of fellow citizens throughout the country that aren't experiencing it – you know, right up close and personal. And that makes their stories and their experiences much more important to share and talk about.”

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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