Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bizarre California Sea Lion Strandings Connected to Warmer Pacific Ocean

Young sea lions

Federal scientists have recently indicated that a record number of young sea lions stranded along the coast of California this year is connected to a perplexing weather pattern that has heated up their Pacific Ocean habitat and possibly impacted the fish populations. Justin Viezbicke, West Coast Stranding Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), stated that roughly 940 sea lion pups have been medicated by California's marine mammal centers earlier this year. This figure is higher than 240 strandings commonly seen during April, and scientists speculate that the undernourished youngsters are leaving sea lion rookeries in southern California too early to search for food on their own after their mothers failed to return promptly from hunting trips to nourish them. According to the Marine Mammal Center's director of veterinary science Dr. Shawn Johnson, the premature pups are leaving the rookeries long before they are old enough to hunt on their own and there has never been such a high number of pups stranded this early in forty years. The strandings are strange because the pups, born in June last year, are not supposed to be weaned until May. Dr. Sharon Melin, a biologist of NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, satellite data showed that mother sea lions are foraging in usual hunting ground but possibly spending longer periods of time away. NOAA climatologist Nate Mantua added that fish populations are probably obstructed by a 330-foot deep layer of ocean water that is two to five degrees warmer than normal at this time of year along the Pacific Coast from the Aleutian Islands to Baja California. The change was produced by a weather pattern comprised of weak northern winds and strong southern winds that are generating warmer-than-normal conditions. It is uncertain how many stranded sea lion pups will perish among the population of 300,000 sea lions. In 2013, about 70 percent of nursing pups died in what NOAA proclaimed an "unusual mortality event" connected to strandings. Dr. Melin stated that pups examined on San Miguel Island this month were found to have a below average weight of 44 percent at seven months of age, indicating the lowest growth rate since scientists began documenting such evaluations in the 1990s. Dr. Johnson added that most of the stranded pups have been revived in southern California, but the pups are also known to either swim or be carried further up north and may someday show up in the states of Oregon and Washington.

It is very disturbing to find young sea lions stranded along the Pacific Coast due to a very unusual weather pattern that also happens to be affecting the fish population which these animals rely on for their survival. In addition, these youngsters' mothers are spending longer periods of time out in the ocean foraging for food which probably gives them lesser time to care for their offspring. Could this behavior also be connected to this weather pattern? It is highly essential to examine this weather trend and check to see whether it might be linked to climate change. The reason is because climate change is known to cause changes in normal behavior of different species of animals. One notable example is seen in the case of polar bears, which are forced to swim vast distances in search of dry land which puts their lives in jeopardy. In addition, other species of marine mammals such as walruses would haul out on an island too small to accommodate their large rookery and end up fiercely competing for space which probably forces some members of the rookery to search for land in vast stretches of the Arctic seas. This behavior demonstrated by polar bears, walruses, and possibly other marine mammals is a clear indication how the polar ice caps have been melting and continue to melt due to climate change. However, there could also be other unusual behavior patterns demonstrated by animals living along the fringes of the world's oceans that may be linked to climate change and this recent news about young sea lions being stranded in large numbers could be one of them. This is why it is extremely crucial to take serious action in an effort to stop climate change before it gets any worse.

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