Guadalupe fur seal (photo: Gregory Bull, Associated Press)
Warmer than usual coastal waters seem to have taken a toll on another marine mammal.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officially labeled record deaths of Guadalupe fur seals, washing up along California’s central coast, an unusual mortality event (UME). There have been 80 strandings of the emaciated creatures so far this year, 42 of them dead. That’s about eight times more than usual. Only 11 of the 38 live ones lived for very long.
Guadalupe fur seals are a threatened species. Estimates of their existence range between 7,000 and 15,000, but no one really knows because the census is old. They mostly breed at Isle de Guadalupe off the coast of Baja California but venture as far north as Vancouver.
Fur seals were once thought to be extinct after hunters were done with them in the late 1800s. They weren’t. They were considered gone again in the early 1900s until two were spotted at the island in 1928.
Their existence has been more precarious than California sea lions, which have also been deemed victims of a UME since 2013. There are 300,000 of the bigger creatures, who are experiencing their third year of mass die-offs. This year is the worst.
Reuters said around 3,500 young sea lions have washed up alive, some barely, along the coast from San Diego to the Bay Area since January.
“We think that warm water conditions have really changed the range of quite a few of the forage fish species that the fur seals would be going after,” Toby Garfield, an official with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, told Associated Press. Fish species that the fur seals used to eat have moved away.
Strange things are happening in the oceans these days, some of it attributed to climate change, some to cyclical phenomena of an unpredictable nature. A giant blob of warm water, formed in the Gulf of Alaska, has been disrupting ocean ecosystems and air currents for two years. It has been blamed, in part, for California’s drought and bizarre weather on the other side of the country.
The blob is rivaled by the pending arrival of an imposing El Niño, expected to bring heavy storms to California this winter that could last for months. But coincidence is not causality, and scientists can not say with certainty what is killing the fur seals. They just know fur seals are dying.