Warm Winter Wrought Havoc for Coastal Wildlife

On the Farallones, the warm air and warm ocean this winter proved harsh for wildlife like these weaned elephant seal pups. (Sophie Webb/Point Blue)
On the Farallones, the warm air and warm ocean this winter proved harsh for wildlife like these weaned elephant seal pups. (Sophie Webb/Point Blue)

Warm ocean waters and the recent lack of cool weather coalesced into a rough winter for wildlife on the islands known as "California’s Galapagos."

About thirty miles out from the Golden Gate, the federally protected Farallones are breeding grounds visited by hundreds of thousands of seabirds – many of which use the islands as a  winter way station -- but not this year.

Gerry McChesney, manager of the site for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that’s a bad sign not just for the Farallon Islands but also for wildlife more broadly along California’s coast.

There was also hardship for breeding marine mammals. Dozens of pregnant sea lions proved too weak to carry their pups to term.

“That’s such a bizarre thing,” McChesney says. “We were seeing multiple aborted fetuses every day,” 94 in total – or nearly half the number of sea lions born there in 2014.

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Nor was the warm winter kind to elephant seal pups. Russ Bradley, Farallon program manager for Point Blue Conservation Science, says elephant seal mothers, trying to cool off amid the unusual heat, led their pups up to a cliff that, while breezy, proved perilous – “and actually had a fair amount of pups fall into this sea channel, because they’re pups and they’re clumsy and they got too close to the edge.”

“It is pretty brutal for the biologists out here that had to watch it," McChesney says. "It was pretty tough.”

Among the conspicuously absent birds was a type called Cassin’s Auklet, which feeds on krill. All along the Pacific coast, McChesney says, these birds have been suffering “a huge, unprecedented die-off like we’ve never seen” for want of food. That’s also bad news for other species that eat krill, he says, from salmon to blue whales.

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At the same time, the warm winter and warm water may have made the islands more inviting for other species, like brown boobies – a bird much more familiar to Central America and Mexico. Pointing to records from 1968 to 1999, “We had 11 observations of this species total in 30 years,” McChesney says. “A week ago, I saw 12 at the same time on the island.”

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