Subject: Seals/El Nino takes toll on seals (fwd)

Mike Williamson (pita@www1.wheelock.edu)
Sat, 13 Dec 1997 16:29:14 -0500 (EST)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 12 Dec 1997 08:28:15 -0500
From: Dagmar Fertl <Dagmar_Fertl@mms.gov>
Reply-To: Marine Mammals Research and Conservation Discussion
     <MARMAM@UVVM.UVIC.CA>
To: MARMAM@UVVM.UVIC.CA
Subject: newsclip - El Niqo takes toll on seals

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     El Ni=F1o takes toll on seals and sea lions:  Dying animals present
     dilemma for animal activists
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     December 11, 1997
                         =20
     LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Starving seals and sea lions are waddling ashore=
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     along California's coast, their skin sagging off their gaunt bodies=20
     like oversized coats. Already, thousands have died since summer.=20
    =20
     Warmer water from this year's El Ni=F1o weather pattern has driven
     away fish and squid the mammals eat to survive, forcing them to
     leave their island habitats for the mainland to find food.=20
    =20
     On islands from San Francisco to San Diego, beaches are littered
     ith carcasses of California sea lions and northern fur seals. Sea
     gulls pick at some bodies. Others lay dying, barely moving.=20
    =20
     Seal Samaritans are rescuing some of the emaciated animals as
     they flounder on beaches and nursing them back to health. But
      researchers say it's part of the natural cycle of life and are making
     no effort to save the seals.=20
    =20
     "Yeah, it's hard to see these pups dying, but it's just a blip on the
     long-term population," said Bob DeLong, a marine biology expert
     with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, a branch of
     the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.=20
    =20
     Mother seals have been forced to dive deeper and travel farther
     for food, exhausting more energy and spending more time away
     from their pups. The milk they use to feed their young becomes
     undernourished, as do the pups that drink it. Sometimes the
     mothers have little or no milk to give.=20
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     Of 2,000 northern fur seals born at one research facility on San
     Miguel Island since July, 1,500 died by October 1, DeLong said.=20
    =20
     Among 23,000 California sea lions born on the island since July,
     1,200 died by September, DeLong said. Their death rate is
     expected to accelerate during the so-called weaning period, when
     pups become accustomed to hunting for their own food.=20
    =20
     Experts point out that the populations of both species have soared
     since 1972. DeLong said the sea lion population since then has
     increased by 5 percent, with between 85,000 to 180,000 breeding
     on the Channel Islands, 50 miles off the Ventura County coast.=20
    =20
     The northern fur seal population has jumped 20 percent over the
     same time. One million live in U.S. waters, including 11,000 on
     San Miguel.=20
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     "Even when major El Ni=F1os occur, like (in 1983) ... they did not
     arrest the growth of the population," DeLong said.=20
    =20
     Mortality rate three times the norm On the seals' offshore breeding
     areas, such as San Miguel and others in the Channel Islands chain,
     the mortality rate will be at least 66 percent -- three times the norm=
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     in the first year after birth, DeLong said.=20
    =20
     The lucky ones venture away looking for food and wash up on California=
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     beaches to be saved by environmental groups.=20
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     "We get animals sick and starving even when it's not El Ni=F1o," said
     wildlife biologist Joe Cordaro, who coordinates a statewide
     network that rescues stranded sea life from beaches for the
     fisheries service.=20
    =20
     "These are animals that aren't as fit," he said. "It's something we
     have to go through periodically. But nobody likes to see sick and
     starving animals dying in front of you."=20
    =20
     Last year, 1,400 sea lions and seals became stranded on the
     California coast. During the last El Ni=F1o, in 1992, 2,600 washed
     ashore. Only 8 percent of those were alive.=20
    =20
     In the last massive El Ni=F1o, in 1982, 2,200 were beached,
     Cordaro said.=20
    =20
     The mounting death toll creates a dilemma for animal activists:
     How much should they interfere with natural selection?=20
    =20
     The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits people from
     going to natural habitats such as San Miguel and plucking a dying
     pup off the beach.=20
    =20
     "We don't want people going there, rescuing one animal and
     scaring away and perhaps harming 50 or 60 animals that are
     healthy," Cordaro said. "You'll be separating mothers from pups.
     It's just not a good situation."=20
    =20
     Instead, rescuers stand waiting for strays to appear on beaches.=20
     The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, for example, has rescued
     27 northern fur seals since September 30 on beaches between San
     Luis Obispo and Mendocino counties. In a normal year for that
     area, fewer than five become stranded, center spokeswoman
     Susan Andres said.=20
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     Biologists believe more sea lions and seals will become stranded
     on California beaches by spring, when pups mature to adults and
     become strong enough to leave and look for food on their own.=20
    =20
     Even if some activists wanted to ignore federal law to try to rescue
     some sea lions or seals, chartering a boat to one of the islands and
     feeding all the starving animals would be too expensive. Besides,
     Andres said, the animals are often picky eaters and do not eat
     dead fish.=20
    =20
     "It's a natural habitat out there," Cordaro said. "This happens every
     day."=20