Friday, 1 January 2016

El Niño ocean warming 'causing havoc' for seals off California coast

Unprecedented numbers of dead or starving seals washing ashore as Pacific Ocean warms, with experts saying they are ‘preparing for the worst’ in 2016

Wednesday 30 December 2015 16.52 GMTLast modified on Wednesday 30 December 201516.59 GMT

The warming of the Pacific Ocean caused by the El Niño climate event is “causing havoc” among marine animals off California’s coast, with unprecedented numbers of dead or starving seals being washed ashore.

The San Francisco-based Marine Mammal Center said it has rescued 106 emaciated northern fur seals so far in 2015 – three times greater than the previous record year for rescues. The center said the seals are victim of the exceptionally strong El Niño, which has brought a surge of warm water species, such as red tuna crabs and hammerhead sharks, to California’s coast.

Mothers of seal pups born on California’s channel islands, found west of Los Angeles, are finding it difficult to find their usual prey of sardines and anchovies, which are moving to cooler areas further north to escape sea temperatures that are 2-4C warmer than average.

This means that pups, initially reliant on their mother for nutritious milk, are underweight and understrength when they have to find their own food.

“They can’t dive as deep, they can’t hold their breath as long,” said Dr Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center. “We have been rescuing four-month-old pups weighing 4-5kg, which is typically their birth weight. They should be double that. We are finding pups at record low weights. It’s really worrying for us.

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