No, Fukushima is not killing off massive quantities of sea life near California

Deep Sea News, a blog written largely by professional ocean scientists, has been doing a really good job of debunking bogus stories about Fukushima radiation affecting ocean wildlife near North America. And there are a lot to choose from. It's damn near a genre, at this point — a genre that's full of misleading information and flat-out fabrications. For instance, the latest story to circulate on social media is all about how Fukushima radiation is causing massive die-offs of sea life off the coast of California.

But this claim falls apart pretty quickly. At Deep Sea News, Craig McClain, Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real science behind this story has nothing to do with radiation or Fukushima. Instead, writers at Natural News apparently took a scientific journal article about climate and food cycles in the deep ocean and just decided, without any basis, that the bloom/die-off cycles recorded in the paper must have been caused by Fukushima. This, despite the fact that those cycles have been happening since before 2011.

McClain breaks down the research paper that Natural News used to make their Fukushima claims and explains what's really going on. One key point, the paper isn't even about mysterious deaths of massive amounts of marine creatures. It's about bloom/die-off cycles, a natural process in which small creatures like algae and jelly-like salps explode in number and then die, sinking to the seafloor where their bodies feed other animals. When the paper says that the die-offs are larger than they used to be, what it's really saying is that populations of algae and salps are getting larger and that sudden blooms in those populations are getting bigger. The real science is not a story about death, at all. It's a story about a food cycle on steroids.

From 2003 to 2012 the amount of phytoplankton production, fodder for marine snow, was higher than years prior. After 2006, the frequency of spikes in marine snow, i.e. blizzards, also increased. In the summer of 2011, the first of three dramatic blizzards occurred. During this event a large number of diatoms bloomed at the surface and sank rapidly to the seafloor. The second event in the spring/early summer of 2012, was triggered by a major bloom of gelatinous salps. As mentioned in the press release of the paper, "These salps became so abundant that they blocked the seawater intake of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, located on the California coast east of Station M." When these salps died, as they do after a bloom, they carpeted the seafloor. In September 2012 another plankton bloom occurred and this combined with fecal pellets from salps (who hungrily munched on the algae) again carpeted the floor with marine snow. In addition the greatest amounts of marine snow and consumption by deep-sea life (as measured by respiration rates) occurred in the last two years of the time series.

… Nowhere does the paper or the press release mention radiation or Fukushima. Nilch, negatory, nadda, never.

But this is not good enough for staff writer Ethan Hunt and others outlets that continue to recycle this story. [Here McClain quotes the Natural News article:] "Though the researchers involved with the work have been reluctant to pin Fukushima as a potential cause — National Geographic, which covered the study recently, did not even mention Fukushima — the timing of the discovery suggests that Fukushima is, perhaps, the cause."

I'm really not kidding. Natural News literally pulled the Fukushima reference out of thin air, based solely on the fact that three large algae blooms occurred after the spring of 2011 — even though those were part of a pattern of especially large blooms dating back to 2006, and the overall quantity of small plants and animals involved in the bloom/die-off cycle has been especially high since 2003. And then Natural News insinuated that scientists and other news outlets were engaging in conspiracy or willful ignorance because those people didn't make wild, speculative claims with no basis in fact. Essentially, Natural News lies to you. And, for that, they're being rewarded with increased readership. So here's a better plan. In the future, when you see a headline on Facebook or Twitter telling you about Fukushima harming North American fisheries or ocean life, don't bother clicking on that link. Go check out Deep Sea News, instead, and get the real story behind the headline.

Image: A colony of salps, photographed by Lars Plougmann and used via CC