El Nino Coming?

Marine Mammal Center veterinarian Bill van Bonn unlatched the gate and stepped into a fenced pen with a yearling sea lion.  You could see outlines of his rib bones through his brown fur.  He made a raspy gargling bark.  Four hours earlier the emaciated pup was on the operating table, and van Bonn was removing a necrotic and infected lymph node.  “He’s about half normal weight,” said van Bonn, “pretty typical for the sick sea lions we’re now seeing so many of.”

The new $32 million Center on a bluff overlooking Rodeo Beach north of San Francisco, “is filled to capacity and beyond,” said van Bonn.  He’s a former veterinarian with the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego and wears a stethoscope around his neck as we thread our way betwen pens of barking sea lions.  “We’re not exactly sure why.  We’re not seeing demoic acid poisoning or anything else specific in necropsies (of dead sea lions.)  We know the animals are malnourished, the question is where did the food go?”

A quick look at the animated SST Anomaly from the National Climate Data Center may explain.  US Government climate scientists say the trend is consistent with an El Nino weather pattern.  This means water temperatures are warmer than normal along the California coast;  indeed, buoy data show water temperatures several degrees warmer than usual for this time of year.

“El Nino for this part of the coast is bad news,” said Zeke Grader a San Francisco fisherman who now heads an industry group, The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermans Associations.  He stood along the Crissy Field shoreline with the Golden Gate Bridge behind him.  “The water’s warmer and the fish generally will head north where the water is deeper and cooler.”

“We’re starting to see a number of seabirds starting to strand from malnutrition,” say Mary Jane Schramm of the Gulf of the Farallons National Marine Sanctuary.  Schramm said a guano-covered promontory called Bird Rock just south of Rodeo Beach had been home to nesting Brandt Cormorants.  Not this year.  She also said there are early indications common murres are not nesting in their regular sites on the Farallons.  “So we know there are some problems with the food chain.”

Grader has seen this before.   In 1982 and 1998 strong El Ninos hit fishermen hard, and lashed California with torrential rains.  El Ninos typically mean increased precipitation on the West Coast.  “Generally (El Ninos) mean wet winters,” said Grader, “which is good for (drought-plagued) California, because we need to get that water into the streams for the salmon, and it’s good for the snowpack.”

If you’re reading this on the West Coast, you likely already know about El Nino’s effects- if not, you may want to visit my friend meteorologist Jan Null’s fine El Nino Resources website and learn a little bit about what the future may hold.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnFowlerTV

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