El Nino Wreaks Havoc|With Pacific Sea Lions


     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Record high Pacific Ocean temperatures continue to wreak havoc on marine species and federal officials warned that thousands of sea lions are likely to wash ashore this winter on the California Coast.
     A dramatic decrease in California sea lion pups’ average weight – 31 percent below normal – caused scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to predict another brutal winter for the struggling species, after more than 3,300 pups came ashore in the spring.
     “If last year is any indication of what to expect this year, we’re probably going to see a lot of pups strand unless many die at the rookeries,” said NOAA wildlife biologist Sharon Melin. “We’re already seeing unusual numbers of northern fur seal pups stranding in California and we may even see some adults for both species.”
     Warming water temperatures combined with a massive El Nino have driven the sea lions’ prey deeper – including sardines, rockfish and northern anchovy – and left California sea lion pups hungry.
     Lack of available prey has sent the average weight of sea lion pups plummeting to its lowest level in 41 years of records, Melin said.
     When California sea lions are malnourished they become too unhealthy to swim and end up stranded on beaches across the West Coast. Last year thousands of dying or dead sea lions came ashore in Southern California; some were rescued by marine mammal rescue centers.
     SeaWorld says it has rescued a record 973 sea lions this year, eclipsing its previous record of 474 rescues in 1983 – also a strong El Nino year. The marine park is preparing for another string of animal rescues caused by the warming ocean temperatures.
     NOAA scientists say struggling sea lions are a sign of chaos below the surface.
     “West Coast ocean temperatures have been at or near a record high for over 18 months,” said Nate Mantua, a NOAA fisheries scientist. “We also witnessed a massive toxic bloom, from Southern California to Alaska.”
     The toxic algae have kept West Coast commercial crab fishing boats docked. California, Oregon and Washington have postponed the Dungeness crab season .
     California commercial Dungeness crab fishermen bring in more than $95 million annually and the algae bloom has infected the crab and its prey with a potentially fatal toxin known as domoic acid.
     The postponed start of the lucrative crab fishing season caught the attention of lawmakers last week and the California Legislature held a special hearing on it, and Oregon said Thursday that it will continue to delay the start of its crab season.
     The tumultuous ocean conditions are likely to provide California and the entire West Coast with drought relief, though. NOAA officials said Thursday that El Nino is expected to be among the three strongest since 1950.
     Californians will get a better idea of how much rain and snow they will get from El Nino when NOAA releases its much-anticipated three-month seasonal outlook on Thursday. Despite several cold storms in the past two weeks, the statewide snowpack is just 52 percent of normal.

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