El Nino Seal Slaughter Underway

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Starving seals and sea lions are waddling ashore along California's coast, their skin sagging off their gaunt bodies like oversized coats. Already, thousands have died since summer.
Warmer water from this year's El Nino 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.
On islands from San Francisco to San Diego, beaches are littered with carcasses of California sea lions and northern fur seals. Sea gulls pick at some bodies. Others lay dying, barely moving.
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.
``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.
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.
That has led to death.
Of 2,000 northern fur seals born at one research facility on San Miguel Island since July, 1,500 died by Oct. 1, DeLong said.
More will die.
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.
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.
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.
``Even when major El Ninos occur, like (in 1983) ... they did not arrest the growth of the population,'' DeLong said.
The mounting carcasses are troubling.
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 in the first year after birth, DeLong said.
The lucky ones venture away looking for food and wash up on California beaches to be saved by environmental groups.
``We get animals sick and starving even when it's not El Nino,'' said wildlife biologist Joe Cordaro, who coordinates a statewide network that rescues stranded sea life from beaches for the fisheries service.
``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.''
Last year, 1,400 sea lions and seals became stranded on the California coast. During the last El Nino, in 1992, 2,600 washed ashore. Only 8 percent of those were alive.
In the last massive El Nino, in 1982, 2,200 were beached, Cordaro said.
The mounting death toll creates a dilemma for animal activists: How much should they interfere with natural selection?
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.
``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.''
Instead, rescuers stand wait for strays to appear on beaches.
The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, for example, has rescued 27 northern fur seals since Sept. 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.
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.
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.
``It's a natural habitat out there,'' Cordaro said. ``This happens every day.''
AP-NY-12-11-97 0256EST

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