The deadly ‘ghost gear’ which haunts seas and coastlines

Minke whaleImage copyrightSMASS ORKNEY
Image captionA pregnant minke whale was found tangled in a fishing net in Orkney in October last year

More than half a million tonnes of fishing gear is estimated to be lost or abandoned every year in the world’s seas and oceans. Some of it entangles and kills wildlife at sea and on shore.

Conservationists call it “ghost gear”.

It includes fishing nets, long lines, fish traps and lobster pots left drifting at sea usually after being accidentally lost from fishing grounds or boats, or discarded in an emergency such as in a storm.

“Fishing gear is designed to trap marine organisms, and it can continue to do so long after the gear is lost or discarded in the ocean,” says Joel Baziuk of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI).

“When lost fishing gear keeps catching fish after its intended lifespan, it is called ghost fishing.”

Dead whaleImage copyrightKAREN MUNRO
Image captionThe whale’s body came ashore near Scrabster

He said ghost gear was the most harmful form of debris to marine life because of the risk of entanglement or entrapment.

GGGI estimates at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost or abandoned every year.

The hotspots include the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia and Hawaii in the Pacific.

Joel says: “Ghost gear is a problem anywhere fishing takes place, and that includes Scotland.”

Seal pup in netImage copyrightDAVID YARDLEY
Image captionThis five-week-old grey seal pup was successfully rescued after getting entangled in a plastic net
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The risks this marine pollution poses to wildlife include entanglement, when animals get wrapped up in rope and other gear.

In Scotland, the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (Smass), which investigates marine animal deaths, recorded 12 entanglement cases in 2019.

They included a pregnant whale found dead and tangled in a fishing net in Orkney in October. The net was jammed in the animal’s baleen, the filter-feeder system inside its mouth.

In May, a humpback whale entangled in fishing gear washed up dead close to Scrabster, near Thurso on the north Caithness coast.

The previous month, another humpback whale was found to have been entangled in rope for “weeks, if not months” before it drowned off the East Lothian coast near Tyningham.

What are the other risks?

Rope found in whale's stomachImage copyrightSMASS
Image captionA 100kg “litter ball” was found in the stomach of whale that washed up in Harris

Entanglement is not the only threat posed to whales.

A sperm whale that died after stranding on the Isle of Harris in November had a 100kg “litter ball” in its stomach.

Fishing nets, rope, packing straps, bags and plastic cups were among the items discovered in a compacted mass during an investigation by Smass.

Seals have also been caught up in nets and ropes, though there have been successful rescues of these animals, including the saving of a five-week-old grey seal pup entangled in a plastic net on Lewis.

A hotline run by British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) has received 47 reports of entangled seals this year in Britain. Some of the animals were lucky and were rescued, or managed to free themselves.

Stag with fishing gear in antlersImage copyrightSNH
Image captionA stag on the Isle of Rum with fishing gear caught in its antlers

Other ghost gear victims include animals that forage on shorelines.

In 2017, stags on the Isle of Rum were found with fishing gear caught in their antlers. Two of the animals died after becoming snarled up together in discarded fishing rope, while another stag was photographed with an orange buoy and rope balled up in its antlers.

Even tiny fragments of ghost gear is a risk, say conservationists.

Noel Hawkins, of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas project, says: “Some of the small stuff can be as devastating to wildlife as many seabirds swallow it thinking it is fish eggs or food.

“They choke on it and even use it as nest material, which endangers chicks.”

What is being done?

BDMLR volunteers rescuing a young minke whaleImage copyrightBDMLR
Image captionBDMLR volunteers rescuing a young minke whale

Scotland is playing its part in a global effort to tackle ghost gear.

In a GGGI project, divers from the Ghost Fishing UK initiative have carried out underwater clean-ups in Orkney.

BDMLR, meanwhile, is part of the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (Sea), a coalition of conservation groups, rescue teams and fishermen.

The coalition is seeking to find best practices to avoid entanglements and the most effective responses to any incidents.

This year the alliance trained 20 people working in the fishing industry throughout Scotland in how to help disentangle animals.

And there have been success stories. In October, BDMLR helped to free a humpback from fishing ropes in Orkney.

New technology, such as prawn creels that can be lowered into the sea and returned to the surface without the need of ropes is also being trialled.

What else is happening in Scotland?

Summer Isles rubbishImage copyrightSWT
Image captionWhile tonnes of marine litter is cleared from Scotland’s shores, conservationists warn much more remains floating out to sea

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation says the fishing industry across Europe is “actively engaged” with the issue of discarded gear.

“Very little” fishing equipment is lost at sea by the Scottish fleet, according to the federation’s chief executive Elspeth Macdonald.

She says: “Trawl nets are expensive, which means that skippers try to get as much use as possible out of them, and put them ashore to be mended when required.

“The bulk of the ghost gear found in the Scottish sector is monofilament netting used by French and Spanish gill netters and longliners on the west coast.”

There is also an effort to clean up ghost gear that washes up on Scotland’s shores.

Summer Isles rubbishImage copyrightSWT
Image captionRubbish collected from beaches in the Summer Isles being loaded on to a boat for disposal
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In the north west Highlands, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas project has been setting up beach clean stations in remote locations.

The stations are large pallet boxes with litter pickers and bags attached and members of the public walking along the beaches are encourage to use the stations to gather up any litter they find.

The project’s Noel Hawkins says: “One of these just north of Ullapool at Dun Canna beach has taken in over tonne of rubbish alone.”

In July, tonnes of rubbish was removed from the Summer Isles in the north west Highlands in another of the project’s clean-ups.

Fishing ropes and nets were among the other items gathered in a clean-up

But Noel says: “It is worth remembering that some estimates think only 3 to 5% of rubbish actually comes ashore though.

“There is still a lot more out there.”

All images are subject to copyright.

More on this story

  • Pregnant whale found tangled in ‘ghost gear’ in Orkney
    8 October 2019
  • Whale washes up near Scrabster entangled in fishing gear
    30 May 2019
  • Dead whale was tangled in rope in East Lothian for ‘months’
    25 April 2019
  • Stags on Rum found tangled in discarded fishing gear
    23 May 2018

U.S. agency agrees to designate habitat for threatened ice seals

Ringed and bearded seals live off Alaska’s northwest coast, both are listed as threatened

An adult ringed seal in Kotzebue, Alaska. Both ringed seals and bearded seals are listed as threatened in the U.S. (Mike Cameron/NOAA/Associated Press)

A U.S. federal agency will decide by September how much ocean and coast will be designated as critical habitat for two ice seal species found in Alaska.

The Center for Biological Diversity announced Monday it had reached an agreement with the Commerce Department for the Trump administration to issue a critical habitat rule for ringed and bearded seals.

Ringed and bearded seals live off Alaska’s northwest coast. Both are listed as threatened.

Designation of critical habitat for threatened species is required by the Endangered Species Act a year after a listing. The Center for Biological Diversity sued in June because no critical habitat has been designated.

Federal agencies that authorize activities such as oil drilling within critical habitat must consult with wildlife managers to determine if threatened species will be affected.

There’s a hidden consequence of climate change: A deadly virus that’s killing key marine species

Arctic ice faces trouble from above and below
Arctic ice faces trouble from above and below

Arctic ice faces trouble from above and below 04:56

(CNN)Climate change means melting ice and habitat loss for animals in the Arctic. But there’s an invisible side effect of warming temperatures and rising tides, and it’s killing key marine species.

Melting Arctic sea ice has opened new pathways for Arctic and sub-Arctic species to interact, and that contact has introduced a potentially deadly virus to mammals in the Northern Pacific Ocean, according to a new study in Scientific Reports.
Over 15 years, researchers identified two new channels linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Russia and Alaska. Animals who live there are interacting for the first time, creating a reservoir of the deadly pathogen Phocine distemper virus.
The virus, also called PDV, was first identified in European harbor seals, killing thousands in 1988 and again in 2002. It reemerged in 2004, but this time in northern sea otters in Alaska.
It was surprising that the disease jumped to a different species in a different ocean, said study author Tracey Goldstein, associate director of One Health Institute at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. It’s what led scientists to believe that melting ice was to blame for the infection’s spread.
“Animal health and human health and environmental health are so linked, if one deteriorates then the rest do, too,” she told CNN.

Infection peaked when ice was at its lowest

To evaluate the extent of the infection, researchers took nasal swabs and blood samples from more than 2,500 ice-dwelling seals, Steller sea lions and northern sea otters from Alaska to Russia living in its marginal seas and oceans.
Widespread exposure to the infection peaked twice, in 2003 and 2009. Both outbreaks were preceded by record-low sea ice, Goldstein said.
Ice is essential for marine mammals, she said. It’s where they breed, rest and give birth. When water temperatures warm, their food likely travels deeper into the ocean, so animals are traveling further to catch them, spreading the pathogen across large swaths of northern seas.
Animals can’t keep up with the rate of their rapidly changing environments, Goldstein said, and that makes them more susceptible to disease.

PDV has already impacted people

Goldstein compared PDV to measles in humans — both are highly contagious respiratory diseases that spreads easily through contact (though PDV doesn’t infect humans).
But it’s already indirectly impacted humans who rely on the animals. It’s harder for Alaskans to hunt and maintain their livelihood as seals and fish move further off-shore, she said.
Because the Arctic is so remote, it’s difficult to discern how many species have died from the virus since the start of the study, she said. Some, particularly European harbor seals, are more vulnerable than others — up to 50% of the harbor seal population died in the first two outbreaks, she said.
Outbreaks occur every five to 10 years, typically when ice is at its lowest. Sea ice cover in the Arctic hit its second-lowest level in 2019, according to NASA — and that could mean new paths opened up, linking animals in both oceans and increasing the likelihood of the virus’s reintroduction.
Eliminating the virus may be impossible, but humans can at least stall its spread, Goldstein said. Reducing the global carbon footprint can slow the effects of climate change and give animals a chance to catch up and adapt.

5 animals you may see at the beach, thanks to Endangered Species Act

5 animals you may see at the beach, thanks to Endangered Species Act
© Getty Images

Beach season is here. It’s time to frolic in the surf or lie in the sand, contemplating the vast ocean. But as you enjoy your time in the sun, take a moment to appreciate the wildlife that’s still swimming or scampering past you thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

It’s easy to get discouraged by environmental news these days. Our oil addiction is fueling a climate crisis and killing our coral reefs. Plastic pollution is accumulating in our oceans. And the biggest mass extinctionin human history is underway — being actively worsened by the Trump administration’s reckless policies.

Of the 31 populations studied, just two species declined after being protected under this landmark law: Hawaiian monk seals and Southern Resident killer whales. Not only were all sea turtle species recovering, but their median population increased a whopping 980 percent, reversing the path to extinction that many species were on.

Our oceans are still struggling to recover from decades of destructive fishing practices and industrial pollution. And we have yet to really grapple with the ocean warming and acidification driven by burning fossil fuels.

But as we visit our beautiful beaches, let’s feel hope and gratitude for the natural bounty surrounding us — and pledge to protect it.

Here are five endangered animals you may spot on a visit to the coast.

Sea otters

The world offers few more adorable sights than a sea otter’s furry face popping out of the ocean. Maybe you’ll even see it float onto its back and crack a clam open on its belly with a rock.

California sea otters were almost wiped out by coastal development, pollution and oil spills, but conservation efforts helped the population off California’s coast rebound to around 3,000 — well below their historic numbers, but still an exciting improvement. Sea otters are particularly vulnerable to oil pollution, so they’re threatened by current proposals to expand offshore drilling in the Pacific and restart ExxonMobil’s dormant offshore platforms.

Snowy plovers

As you walk along the water’s edge, you’ll probably see shorebirds skittering in and out with the tide, snacking on crustaceans, insects and worms. Some of the smallest and cutest are the snowy plovers, which generally have a white chest and face and a brown and grey cloak of feathers. But they’ve been disappearing from beaches on the West Coast and in the Caribbean as humans and their pets trample their fragile eggs. Active conservation measures are helping; please look out for plover warning signs and keep your dog on a leash if you see any.

Sea Turtles

Endangered sea turtles’ recovery has been an amazing Endangered Species Act success story, but it’s still being written. The act has protected nesting beaches from development and lighting that disorients baby turtles. It’s also required most shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico to include turtle excluder devices to prevent these ancient creatures from being caught and killed in the nets.

But threats remain. Ocean plastic pollution chokes turtles and interferes with their reproduction. Industrial fishing practices like longline fishing decimated Pacific leatherbacks and other endangered turtles. Longline fishing was banned off California’s coast, but the Trump administration and fishing industry are now trying to reintroduce and expand it — so appreciate sea turtles and support a happy ending to their success story.

Monk seals

Hawaiian monk seals are among the world’s most endangered marine mammals, hovering perilously close to extinction with less than 1,000 remaining. They’re native to all the Hawaiian islands, but they’ve been harmed by predation, a lack of food and habitat loss. Climate change and sea-level rise are looming threats that lend urgency to efforts to stabilize the monk seal population now.

Federal and state conservation agencies have taken steps to protect their habitat and reintroduce them to the main Hawaiian islands they’ve disappeared from. If you see one on a visit to Hawaii, please keep your distance.

Humpback whales

These are the whales you see breaching and jumping in fantastic displays. After humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction, the Endangered Species Act helped pull them back from the brink and put them on the road to recovery. To protect these amazing animals from deadly entanglements, commercial fishing gear has recently been better regulated along the California coast. For example, the commercial California Dungeness crab season ended early to avoid harming whales during their spring migration.

Whales are the largest animals on Earth, and it’s humbling to watch them swim along our coast. Once seen only as food or fuel, they’re a powerful testament to the enduring possibilities of conservation. If you spot one this summer, enjoy — and let the memory inspire you to protect our oceans.

Marineland Doesn’t Seem to Want to See Us; Here’s How They Can Keep Us Away

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA’s Canadian Representative

Published 08/17/18

Top: Small bucket is the only water source for numerous large animals in enclosure at Marineland.
Bottom: Animals at Marineland struggle to find shade from the blazing hot sun during heatwave.

My last two blogs were accompanied by photographs of animals I saw imprisoned at Marineland, Niagara Falls, Ontario, when I went there with Zoocheck’s Rob Laidlaw last July 5th, during a blistering heat wave. The harbor seals were not affected by record temperatures, being in a small pool in a cool interior, but at no time when we observed them did they open their eyes, an unnatural condition as verified by an expert on seal eyes, not to mention all memories I have of wild harbor seals with their soulfully bulbous eyes wide open. There have been concerns raised about the effects of chlorine on eyes and I thought I could smell chlorine, but whatever the reason, seeing the animals so confined, eyes tightly shut, certainly depressed me.

But, no more so than conditions out in open paddocks where there waslittle or no shade for numbers of large, hoofed herbivores, and water only appearing to be available in containers about the size of a bucket or pail.

On August 8, I received an email from Stephanie Littlejohn, Law Clerk, Hunt Partners LLP, a Toronto-based law firm calling itself “a unique blend of corporate and civil advocacy” consisting of “recognized litigation leaders and trusted advisors.” Ms. Littlejohn wrote: “Please find attached a Notice of Trespass for Marineland of Canada (Inc.), which is being served upon you.”

The notice prohibited me from entering Marineland’s property “At any time for any reason whatsoever” under the Trespass to Property Act. “I got one too,” laughed Rob, when I called to tell him.

Doubtless, Ms. Littlejohn and her colleagues are very professional corporate and civil advocates. Their opinions on animal welfare may differ from their client’s. Ms. Littlejohn might never even have been to Marineland or know much about animal husbandry. But, Rob’s and my expertise includes animal welfare and we both passionately care about animals. Whether any others care about animals with only pots of water and little or no shade in searing heat, or seals with eyes tightly shut, Rob and I do care how animals are treated.

Ironically, I actually don’t want to ever visit Marineland. I was so depressed by my first time there that I avoided the place for 37 years, only returning to see an exhibit that had been falsely advertised; it wasn’t there. Having paid admission, Rob and I looked at the other animals. I’m happy to wait another 37 years, by which time Ms. Littlejohn will probably be a retired lawyer and I’ll be long gone.

For now, I would gladly pay the maximum trespass fine of two thousand bucks if I thought it would eliminate my concerns, or better yet, that Marineland simply had no animals for me to worry about. If Ms. Littlejohn, Hunt Partners LLP, and Marineland want to keep me out, just eliminate the concerns I addressed &ndahs; or better yet, stop imprisoning animals – and I promise to never again cross Marineland’s doorstep. Honest.

Animal rights activists target Indigenous restaurant for serving seal meat
“A new petition by animal rights activists is targeting Toronto
restaurant Kukum Kitchen for serving seal meat on its menu raising ire
from Indigenous people who say their traditional foods are being
unfairly targeted.
““The restaurant claims they are the only restaurant in Toronto that
sells seal meat and we do not want this to become a new trend,” says
the petition from Care 2 organization.
““These are intelligent beings that do not want to die,” it continues.
“Please sign and demand that Kukum Kitchen take seal meat off their

NOAA reminds people not to touch or pick up seal pups


Associated Press

Published on July 1, 2016 9:19AM

Last changed on July 1, 2016 10:21AM

A harbor seal pup rests on seaweed-covered rocks after coming in on the high tide in the West Seattle neighborhood of Seattle in October 2011. At least five times this season, well-meaning people have illegally picked up seal pups in Oregon and Washington thinking they were abandoned or needed help, but that interference ultimately resulted in two deaths, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

A harbor seal pup rests on seaweed-covered rocks after coming in on the high tide in the West Seattle neighborhood of Seattle in October 2011. At least five times this season, well-meaning people have illegally picked up seal pups in Oregon and Washington thinking they were abandoned or needed help, but that interference ultimately resulted in two deaths, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ralph Heitt picks up a “Seal Sitters” sign after the harbor seal pup he and other volunteers had been watching during his rest period returned to the water in Seattle in October 2011. As harbor seals are being born in the Pacific Northwest this time of year, marine mammal advocates are urging people not to touch or pick up pups that come up on beaches and shorelines to rest.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Ralph Heitt picks up a “Seal Sitters” sign after the harbor seal pup he and other volunteers had been watching during his rest period returned to the water in Seattle in October 2011. As harbor seals are being born in the Pacific Northwest this time of year, marine mammal advocates are urging people not to touch or pick up pups that come up on beaches and shorelines to rest.

A baby seal is seen laying across a shopping tote used to carry it off a beach in Westport, Wash. State wildlife officials had to euthanize the harbor seal pup after it was determined to be unresponsive and lethargic.

Marc Myrsell/Westport Aquarium

A baby seal is seen laying across a shopping tote used to carry it off a beach in Westport, Wash. State wildlife officials had to euthanize the harbor seal pup after it was determined to be unresponsive and lethargic.



SEATTLE — As harbor seals are being born in the Pacific Northwest, marine mammal advocates up and down the West Coast are urging people not to touch or pick up pups that come up on beaches and shorelines to rest.

At least five times this season, well-meaning people have illegally picked up seal pups in Oregon and Washington thinking they were abandoned or needed help, but that interference ultimately resulted in two deaths, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

It’s an ongoing issue along the entire West Coast, from Alaska to California, when people who think they’re doing the right thing end up stressing or harming the animals instead, officials say.

State wildlife officials had to euthanize one harbor seal pup last month after a woman picked it up on a beach in Westport, Washington, and apparently carried it back to a house in a shopping tote. The animal was unresponsive and lethargic, Milstein said.

Another couple found a seal pup on the beach in Garibaldi, Oregon, and fearing the animal was abandoned, wrapped the seal in a beach towel, put it in their car and placed it in their shower at home, said Kristin Wilkinson, a NOAA Fisheries regional stranding coordinator. Wildlife officers returned that seal to the beach, but it was discovered dead the next day, she said. That couple received a written warning.

In California last year, there were at least 60 cases where people either illegally picked up or fed marine mammals, said Justin Greenman, NOAA’s assistant stranding coordinator for the state. Some of those animals were re-released; others died in care or had to be euthanized.

Selfies with seals or sea lions are also a growing problem, he added.

People’s impulse is to rush in and help, but it’s better to let nature run its course, Wilkinson said. The risk in taking baby seals off the beach is that adult seals may abandon them. “The best chance they have to survive is to stay wild,” she said.

Last month, in a case that garnered national attention, a Canadian man and his son loaded a bison calf into their SUV at Yellowstone National Park because they thought it was an abandoned newborn that would die without their help. The calf later had to be euthanized because it couldn’t be reunited with its herd.

“This is our Northwest version, apparently,” Milstein said.

NOAA Fisheries has launched a “Share the Shore” campaign to remind beachgoers to leave marine mammals alone, to stay at least 100 yards away and reduce other disturbances, such as keeping dogs on leashes. It’s illegal to harass, disturb or try to move young seals or other marine mammals.

Wilkinson said they typically see six to 10 illegal animal handling cases a year, but this year they’re seeing them earlier in the season and within a wider area.

Harbor seal pups are born along the West Coast, typically from February to May in California and from spring to late summer in the Northwest. They use beaches, docks and other shoreline areas to rest, regulate their body temperatures or wait for their mothers, who typically are nearby but may not come near the pups if there are too many disturbances.

Dr. Jeff Boehm, executive director of The Marine Mammal Center in Northern California, said so far this year 18 marine mammals have been brought to his center because they were harassed or illegally picked up. Most were eventually released into the wild after being treated but three have died.

“These animals have an innate charm. When you see one on the beach, they just draw you in. They’re small. They’re vulnerable,” he said, but people should really pause, take a step back and call local authorities who know best what to do with them.

NOAA wildlife officers in Washington are investigating a number of cases, including one in which a seal pup born prematurely parked up on the beach and a homeowner placed the animal in a tote and removed it, worried about bald eagles preying on the seal and making a mess on the beach, Wilkinson said.

Last month, a seal wasn’t illegally picked up but the pup was killed after wildlife officials determined that too much traffic and people on the beach meant that the mother was not likely to reunite with her pup.

In another case, a woman picked up a seal and briefly put it in her car before someone else told her to put the animal back on the beach, said Marc Myrsell, who directs the Westport Aquarium and whose staff responded to that incident. That pup returned to the water on its own.

Last week, a pup was handled so extensively at a beach park that wildlife responders determined the constant human interaction permanently separated the pup from its mother. People held the pup in their laps, cuddled it and pet the animal for many hours, she added. That seal was eventually taken to a rehabilitation facility.

With rehabilitation, “you’re giving them a second start, but you might not be giving them all the tools they need,” said Dr. Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian with SeaDoc Society. “They probably have a much better chance if they stay with their moms.”

Captain Paul Watson and Pamela Anderson Praise Newly Elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Pamela AndersonPamela AndersonSea Shepherd Conservation Society Founder Captain Paul Watson and actress/activist Pamela Anderson have written a congratulatory letter to Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, referring to his election as akin to “a warm return of spring after a bitterly long winter.” Captain Watson and Anderson, both native Canadians, have a history of working together on international conservation issues, including the Canadian seal hunt.

Prime Minister Trudeau was recently elected after former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s many years of discounting the importance of environmental protection. Captain Watson and Anderson address the immediate need to not only “repair the damage that has been done” to fisheries, oceanic ecosystems and the environment, but to also “protect the ecological heritage of the far north.”

Anderson, who became chair of Sea Shepherd’s Board of Directors earlier this week, is a long-time Sea Shepherd supporter, and dear friend of Captain Watson. She has not only dedicated her time and resources to protecting human and animal rights, and environmental conservation, but she has also bravely fought alongside Sea Shepherd defending marine species on the frontlines.

Now, the Canadian people and moreover, the world, are hopeful Canada will play a greater role in protecting the environment, allowing for a brighter future for all. Sea Shepherd and the Pamela Anderson Foundation extend their interest, commitment and resources to partner with Prime Minister Trudeau’s new administration for the greater good.

PDFPaul Watson and Pamela Anderson’s Letter

Captain Paul Watson with a seal in front of the Sea Shepherd IICaptain Paul Watson with a seal in front of the Sea Shepherd

Sea lions adapt to changing climate

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center  March 25, 2015

Climate change and food shortages are behind an increased push of pinnipeds into the Columbia River.

In Southern California hundreds of starving sea lion pups are washing up on beaches, filling marine mammal care centers that scarcely can hold them all.

Meanwhile thousands of adult male California sea lions are surging into the Pacific Northwest, crowding onto docks and jetties in coastal communities.

How can animals from the same population be struggling in one region while thriving in another? The answer lies in the division of family responsibilities between male and female sea lions, and the different ways each responds to an everchanging ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

“We’re seeing the population adjust to the environment as the environment changes,” said Sharon Melin, a sea lion biologist with the fisheries science center.

The environmental changes affecting the sea lions can be traced to unusually weak winds off the West Coast over the last year. Without cooling winds, scientists say, the Pacific Ocean warmed as much as 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (35.6 to 41 degrees Farenheit) above average. What started as a patchwork of warm water from Southern California to Alaska in 2014 has since grown into a vast expanse, affecting everything from plankton at the bottom of the food chain to sea lions near the top.

“The warming is about as strong as anything in the historical record,” said Nathan Mantua, who leads the Landscape Ecology Team at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Struggle for food

The Channel Islands rookeries where nearly all California sea lions raise their young off Southern California sit in the middle of the warm expanse. Female sea lions have strong ties to the rookeries. They take foraging trips of a few days at a time before returning to the rookeries to nurse their pups.

But the unusually warm water has apparently shifted the distribution of their prey, making it harder for females to find enough food to support the nutritional needs of their pups. Their hungry pups, it now appears, are struggling to gain weight and have begun striking out from the rookeries on their own. Many do not make it and instead wash up on shore dead or emaciated.

Since the early 1970s the California sea lion population underwent unprecedented growth. The species is protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and is estimated to number about 300,000 along the U.S. West Coast. But the growth has slowed in recent years as ocean conditions have turned especially unfavorable for juvenile survival. That could lead to population declines in coming years, biologists say.

“We are working on data to look at whether the population might be approaching its resource limits,” Melin told reporters in a recent conference call.

Sea lions serve as an indicator of ocean conditions because they are visible and are sensitive to small environmental and ecological changes, Melin said. The warm temperatures may well be affecting other species in less obvious ways.

“There are probably other things going on in the ecosystem we may not be seeing,” she said.


Unlike female sea lions, males have no lasting obligations to females or young. After mating at the rookeries in midsummer, they leave the rookeries and roam as far as Oregon, Washington and Alaska in search of food.

“They’re bachelors,” said Mark Lowry of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. “They just go wherever they can to find something to eat.”

Male sea lions search out prey with high energy content, especially oily fish such as herring and sardines, said Robert DeLong, who leads a program to study the California Current Ecosystem at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Increasing numbers have found their way to the mouth of the Columbia River to feed on increasingly strong runs of eulachon, also called smelt, and have taken up residence on docks and jetties near Astoria.

“More sea lions learned last year and even more will learn this year that this is a good place to find food,” DeLong said of the Columbia River. “They’ve learned these fish are there now and they won’t forget that.”

DeLong and Steve Jeffries, a research biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, attached satellite-linked tracking tags to 15 sea lions feeding on salmon near Bremerton (Wash.) in November and December. Four of those sea lions are now at the mouth of the Columbia, Jeffries said.

Counts around Astoria rose from a few hundred in January to nearly 2,000 in February, exceeding numbers in previous years at the same time. The count includes some animals from the eastern stock of Steller sea lions, removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2013. The California sea lions also feed on spring chinook salmon and steelhead. Some of the chinook and steelhead stocks are listed under the Endangered Species Act and NOAA Fisheries is working with state officials to address sea lion predation.

By the beginning of May, the male sea lions depart for the summer breeding season at the rookeries in Southern California.

“It’s like flipping a switch,” DeLong said. “Suddenly it’s time to go.”

Warm conditions may continue

The warm expanse of ocean extends to depths of 60 to 100 meters, Mantua said, and will likely take months to dissipate even if normal winds resume. Biologists expect poor feeding conditions for California sea lions will likely continue near their rookeries while warm ocean conditions persist. A more typical spring and summer with strong and persistent winds from the north would cool the water and likely improve foraging conditions along the West Coast.

The tropical El Niño just declared by NOAA is one wild card that may affect West Coast ocean conditions over the next year. If the El Niño continues or intensifies through 2015, it would favor winds and ocean currents that support another year of warm conditions along the West Coast.

More info.:

For more information on sea lion strandings, visit For information on field research in the sea lion rookeries, visit For information on det