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Warm Weather, Warm Ocean Disrupt Wildlife at the Farallones National Wildlife Refuge

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Warm Weather, Warm Ocean Disrupt Wildlife at the Farallones

Joint Press Release – Point Blue Conservation Science; US Fish and Wildlife Service April 29, 2015


This winter’s unusually warm air and ocean temperatures are disrupting marine wildlife at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, as observed by biologists from Point Blue Conservation Science and refuge managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Over the past four months, seals and sea lions are having difficulty reproducing, local seabirds have had low colony attendance, and two tropical species of seabird have shown up on the island, far from their normal range. The cause: warm air and ocean temperatures, from the high pressure system responsible for California’s mildest, driest, and warmest winter on record. This unusual weather has resulted in a lack of ocean upwelling, the process that brings nutrient rich waters from the bottom of the ocean to the surface. When upwelling is disrupted, the ocean food web is thrown out of balance – and the result is less food for marine wildlife, which disrupts their ability to breed as successfully. “The reasons for these rare observations have to do with the unusually warm air and ocean temperatures and how they impact the ecosystem,” says Russ Bradley, Farallon Researcher for Point Blue Conservation Science. “In February, average air temperature and average sea surface temperature were the highest recorded in 45 years.” Observations of disrupted breeding activities include:


Climate change is clearly a factor in some, if not all of these unusual occurrences, but it will take ongoing monitoring and time to fully understand the connection.  The high elephant seal pup mortality, for example, can be attributed to the unusually high air temperature combined with the decline of sand at the elephant seal breeding colony, which is a result of ongoing erosion from increased storm surges.  Increased storm surges are likely an impact of climate change. Elephant seals use sand to keep themselves cool while on land; a lack of sand, combined with high air temperatures, produce conditions that make it difficult for young elephant seals to survive. “It will take several years to see if these unusual wildlife patterns hold,” says Gerry McChesney, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If they do, it can probably be said that climate change is a major driving force.” Observations such as those on the Farallon Islands help researchers understand the effects of changing weather patterns and predict their effects on other ocean resources—such as fisheries, which are critical to the survival of seabirds and marine mammals and an important food source for humans. “These unusual observations highlight the importance of monitoring our coastal wildlife,” says McChesney. “They are significant indicators of ocean health, and help us understand and protect valuable coastal resources.” The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is located about 30 miles west of San Francisco. Since 1968 Point Blue has monitored wildlife populations and environmental change on the islands daily, working in close collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Refuge. The Farallones host the largest seabird nesting colony in the contiguous U.S., as well as rookeries of seals and sea lions.  Point Blue’s long-term research on the Farallon Islands has helped monitor the Refuge’s valuable natural resources and California’s highly productive marine ecosystem.

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