A Guadalupe fur seal passes by a sea lion as a SeaWorld animal rescue team member feeds them at their rescue facility in San Diego. Photo: Gregory Bull / AP Photo

By Michael Casey
29 September 2015

(CBS News) – Federal officials are trying to understand what is behind a sharp rise in the stranding and deaths of threatened fur seals, with dozens washing up along the California coast this year.

Designating it an Unusual Mortality Event, NOAA Fisheries said that as many as 80 Guadalupe fur seals have appeared on shore, about half of them dead and the other half starving. That is eight times more than normal. The "unusual mortality" designation allows for additional funding and international scientists to be directed to examine the problem.

"We are significantly higher than what we would normally expect here in California," said Justin Viezbicke, the NOAA Fisheries Stranding Coordinator for the West Coast region, of the strandings that averaged under 10 a year from 2009 to 2014 and about 12 animals per year over the past three decades.

Many of the fur seals, which breed almost entirely on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, have been turning up emaciated but scientists can't say exactly why. Hunting brought the species to near extinction in the late 1800s, but it is slowly recovering. The species current population is estimated at more than 10,000 animals.

One theory for the strandings is that waters in the Pacific Ocean off of California have warmed over the past two years, pushing the fish they feed upon further north.

"The conditions in the Pacific Ocean have been anomalous for almost two years now," Toby Garfield, director environmental research division at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said, referring to a warm patch of water known as the blob that formed in the Gulf of Alaska and a high pressure ridge that has kept winter storms further north towards Washington and Canada.

"The result of that is we have seen some real species changes, especially with a lot of the forage fish that fur seals and sea lions would be feasting on if you will," Garfield said. […]

The surge in fur seals deaths follows several months in which more than 1,000 starving sea lions were turning up along the California coast. [more]

Strange spike in fur seal deaths on California coast


By Christopher Weber
29 September 2015

(Associated Press) – Scientists are looking at ocean-warming trends to figure out why endangered Guadalupe fur seals are stranding themselves and dying in alarming numbers along the central California coast.

Approximately 80 emaciated fur seals have come ashore since January — about eight times more than normal — leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week to declare an “unusual mortality event” for the animals. The classification diverts additional resources to study the animals, which have been traditionally under-researched, officials said.

Researchers will try to determine if the die-off is a result of a disruption in the seal’s feeding patterns from a large-scale warming of the Pacific Ocean, Toby Garfield, an official with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said Tuesday.

The so-called warm blobs occurring during a persistent high-pressure ridge have grown to cover most of the West Coast and have been previously blamed for discoveries of emaciated young sea lions off California and starving seabirds off Oregon and Washington.

Some of the fish species that fur seals usually eat may have moved farther north to escape the unusually warm waters, Garfield said during a teleconference.

“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,” he said.

Scientists are looking at ocean-warming trends to figure out why endangered Guadalupe fur seals are stranding themselves and dying in alarming numbers along the central California coast.

Approximately 80 emaciated fur seals have come ashore since January — about eight times more than normal — leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week to declare an “unusual mortality event” for the animals. The classification diverts additional resources to study the animals, which have been traditionally under-researched, officials said.

Researchers will try to determine if the die-off is a result of a disruption in the seal’s feeding patterns from a large-scale warming of the Pacific Ocean, Toby Garfield, an official with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said Tuesday.

The so-called warm blobs occurring during a persistent high-pressure ridge have grown to cover most of the West Coast and have been previously blamed for discoveries of emaciated young sea lions off California and starving seabirds off Oregon and Washington.

Some of the fish species that fur seals usually eat may have moved farther north to escape the unusually warm waters, Garfield said during a teleconference.

“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,” he said. […]

Of the 80 Guadalupe sea lions stranded so far this year, 42 were found dead, said Justin Viezbicke, a NOAA coordinator in Long Beach. From 2009 through 2014, the agency recorded only about 10 strandings per year.

The spike “demands immediate response,” resulting in the designation, Viezbicke said. [more]

Spike in fur seals dying off coast ‘demands immediate response,’ Long Beach scientist says

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