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Fur Seals

El Niño vs. the Fur Seals

El Niño vs. the Fur Seals

Along with the extra rain that may or may not show up to alleviate the drought this year, El Niño is also bringing warmer water to California’s coastline. Surfers already know what I’m talking about: in San Diego and LA you can still go out in board shorts. One veteran surfer I went out with told me he hadn’t seen the water this warm in 50 years of riding waves. “It’s weird,” he said.

Recent data from NASA shows that this past October was the warmest on record, and the change is affecting the food chain, from the bottom up. As the coral reefs off California, and around the world, bleach and die off in the warmer waters, fish and the larger mammals are also being affected.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an “unusual mortality event” earlier this year after record numbers of Guadalupe fur seals were stranded between January and October 2015. Some 80 seals were ended up on the beaches of Central California during this period. Of those, about half were found dead.

Guadalupe fur seals don’t usually venture that far north, as their historical range is close to Southern California, near the seals’ primary breeding colony on Guadalupe Island, Mexico. But hungry seals will travel, and the record-setting strandings, along with the emaciated state of the beached seals, seem to indicate that starvation is a factor. The recent forays into northern waters are likely due to decreasing fish stock caused by warm water in the south.

A recent article in the Orange County Register describes the warming trend as one that has taken place over decades, not just a couple of years. The article says that overall fish stock has declined 70 percent since the mid-1980’s and indicates that global warming is likely the overall catalyst.

However, despite the gradual change, the most recent uptick in marine animal strandings has been sudden and severe, paralleling this year’s pronounced ocean temperature increase. The cycle of warming climate producing El Niño, and the latter, in turn, exacerbating warming won’t be going away anytime soon. In the meantime, we can only hope that the sea creatures, from the coral up to the fur seals, are able to adapt.

By Brian Gruters

Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.