Yesterday it was reported that sea lion pups along the California coast are literally starving to death. According to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), global warming has nothing to do with it. It’s all part of an El Niño weather pattern that’s wreaking havoc on the food chain supply.
NOAA released figures yesterday showing that since January 1, “more than 1,800 starving sea lion pups have washed up on California beaches since Jan. 1 and 750 are being treated” in marine mammal care centers across the state.
Scientists at NOAA believe the crisis hasn’t reached its peak and expect more sea lions to show up on beaches for at least two more months. Meanwhile, thousands of adult male California sea lions are “surging into the Pacific Northwest, crowding onto docks and jetties in coastal communities.”
According to NOAA, the “Channel Islands rookeries where nearly all California sea lions raise their young sit in the middle of the warm expanse. Female sea lions have strong ties to the rookeries. They take foraging trips of a few days at a time before returning to the rookeries to nurse their pups.”
But this warm expanse has risen from 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit (when compared to the long-term average), which is not an ideal environment for the sea lion’s diet: fish and squid, including “salmon, hake, Pacific whiting, anchovy, herring, rockfish, lamprey, dogfish, and market squid.” Sea lions will even eat clams.
It’s believed their food source is moving north to cooler waters, forcing the mothers to abandon their pups as they travel further away from the nurseries in search of food, sometimes for over a week. As a result, “the pups aren’t eating as much or as frequently and they are weaning themselves early out of desperation and striking out on their own even though they are underweight and can’t hunt properly.”
NOAA says that a particularly strong weather pattern known as El Niño is to blame, not climate change. “It’s a very regional patch of warm water and it doesn’t look like global warming to me,” said Nate Mantua, a NOAA research scientist based in Santa Cruz, California.
El Niño weather patterns are “associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific,” which in turn warms the ocean off the Southern California coast. The last El Niño of this magnitude was in 1998, when “2,500 sea lion pups were found washed up on California beaches.”
On March 5, 2015, NOAA predicted this El Niño weather pattern would be weak, and have little influence on weather and climate. “NOAA scientists will continue to monitor the situation and will issue its next monthly update on April 9.”
Meanwhile, NOAA says the sea pups rescued by animal centers are tube-fed, tagged, and then released back into the wild. Unfortunately, the vast majority of sea pups spotted and reported to authorities are beyond help, with some dying and others being euthanized.