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A swordfish and a loggerhead turtle in B.C. coastal waters? Scientists say warming seas are to blame

WATCH: A B.C. researcher has spotted not one, but two species in our coastal waters that are typically only spotted in the south. As Kylie Stanton reports, it’s a troubling sign that points to ocean temperatures rising.

It may have been a beautiful sight, but the discovery of two warm water ocean dwellers off B.C.’s coast has researchers worried about climate change.

A swordfish and a loggerhead turtle were found swimming off the coast of Vancouver Island in two separate sightings by marine ecologist Luke Halpin, whose findings were recently published in the spring issue of the Northwestern Naturalist journal.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first time they’ve been seen off Vancouver Island and in coastal waters,” Halpin said in a Skype interview from Melbourne, Australia, where he’s earning his PhD.

PHOTOS: See the pictures taken of the loggerhead turtle and the swordfish off the coast of Vancouver Island.

The loggerhead turtle spotted off Vancouver Island on Feb. 22, 2015.
The loggerhead turtle spotted off Vancouver Island on Feb. 22, 2015. Photo by Luke Halpin
The swordfish spotted off Vancouver Island on Sept. 5, 2017.
The swordfish spotted off Vancouver Island on Sept. 5, 2017. Photo by Luke Halpin

Halpin spotted the swordfish, which measured two-to-three metres long, roughly 20 nautical miles from Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island on Sept. 5, 2017.

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The loggerhead turtle was sighted more than two years earlier, on Feb. 22, 2015, roughly 45 nautical miles west of Tofino. It was estimated to be two-thirds of a metre in length and had significant algae growth on its head and shell.

READ MORE: Warmer waters from climate change expected to shrink fish: UBC researchers

Halpin, who works as a surveyor of seabirds and marine mammals, was working under contract to the Canadian government during both sightings. He said the creatures’ appearance in B.C. could be a sign of things to come.

“I think it’s potentially indicative of a continued warming trend and we’re likely to see more of these warm species in our waters,” he said, adding that these species could ultimately become acclimatized to northern waters if southern waters become too unbearable.

A map showing where the swordfish, near Brooks Peninsula, and the loggerhead turtle, near Tofino, were spotted.
A map showing where the swordfish, near Brooks Peninsula, and the loggerhead turtle, near Tofino, were spotted. Global News

That raises concerns about how the potential influx will impact B.C.’s ocean ecosystem, as more predators move in and compete over the same amount of prey.

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Warmer seas could also make the northern ocean physically unbearable for local mainstays like native salmon and herring, according to marine ecologist Jeffrey Seminoff, who heads the Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program at the Southwest Fisheries Science Centre in California.

READ MORE: Great white sharks could swim along B.C.’s coast as oceans warm: UBC researcher

“It’s amazing how just very, very minute changes in water temperatures can have such massive downstream impacts on primary productivity, on species ranges and on their susceptibility on human impacts,” Seminoff said.

Ian McAllister, co-founder and executive director of Pacific Wild, thinks the time has come for an increased conservation effort in order to save these species from getting caught up in the rising temperatures.

“These are adding to an already beleaguered ocean and we believe we really should be using a much more precautionary approach to how we’re managing species in the ocean,” he said.

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Halpin said the sightings aren’t necessarily a reason to panic, saying there’s more research needed to see if this is indeed a trend, instead of a one-time coincidence.

“These are just two observations; we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” he said. “It may be a more regular occurrence as we see warmer waters off our coast.”