Frequent Questions: 2015–2018 Guadalupe Fur Seal Unusual Mortality Event in California
NOAA Fisheries has declared an unusual mortality event for Guadalupe fur seal strandings in California. This event began in January 2015, peaked in April through June, and has since lessened.
What is an unusual mortality event?
An unusual mortality event, or UME for short, is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. There are seven criteria that make a mortality event "unusual." If the national Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events, a group of marine mammal health experts, determines that an event meets one or more of the criteria, then it forwards a recommendation to NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to declare a UME.
What criteria have been met for the Guadalupe fur seal UME?
The working group concluded that three of the seven criteria for determining an unusual mortality event have been met. criteria 1, 5, and 6. These strandings are unusual because there is: a marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records, affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition, and potentially significant morbidity, mortality or stranding is observed in species, stocks or populations that are particularly vulnerable (e.g., listed as depleted, threatened or endangered, or declining).
How widespread is the Guadalupe fur seal UME?
Currently, increased strandings of Guadalupe fur seals have been observed along the entire California coast.
When did the first reports of increased strandings of Guadalupe fur seals occur?
The first reported stranding in this event was in January 2015. The number of Guadalupe fur seal strandings has continued to increase in 2016 and 2017. Strandings are seasonal, and they usually peak between April and June each year.
What are the findings in stranded Guadalupe fur seals?
The Guadalupe fur seal strandings have been mostly weaned pups and juveniles (1 to 2 years old), and both live and dead strandings are occurring. Current findings from the majority of stranded animals include primary malnutrition with secondary bacterial and parasitic infections.
What is the status of the current Guadalupe fur seal population?
Guadalupe fur seals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in addition to being protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There is a small rookery of Guadalupe fur seals off Baja California on San Benito Island, and several pups born off Southern California at San Miguel Island have been documented, but their breeding grounds are almost entirely on Guadalupe Island, Mexico. While Guadalupe fur seals may range for hundreds of miles, they are non-migratory.
Guadalupe fur seals were almost hunted to extinction for their fur in the late 1800s. Their population has been slowly recovering thanks in part to the protections provided by the MMPA and ESA. The most recent U.S. stock assessment report (2000) estimated a minimum population of approximately 3,000 fur seals in Mexico. Gallo-Reynoso et al. (2005) estimated a population of more than 12,000 animals based on a census at Guadalupe Island in 2003.
A status review for Guadalupe fur seals was last conducted in 1984, which resulted in the decision to list the species as threatened. NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Regional Office is currently undergoing a status review to update information and determine whether the species should be reclassified under the ESA.
Has this Guadalupe fur seal UME affected other marine mammals or animals?
This event is occurring in the same area as the ongoing 2013–2017 California sea lion UME. In that event, more than 3,500 live California sea lions stranded on beaches in 2015 alone, and strandings remained elevated in 2016 and 2017.
What are the next steps in the investigation now that an UME has been declared?
As part of the UME investigation process, an independent team of scientists (investigative team) is being assembled to coordinate with the working group to review the data collected and determine potential next steps. The investigative team will develop an investigative plan and coordinate with other ongoing UME investigations. The investigation may require months, or even years of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.
What additional resources are now available to pursue the investigation, since a UME has been declared?
An UME declaration provides additional expertise from the working group (an international and multidisciplinary team of scientists) and additional stranding response partners, as well as access to additional funding through the National UME Contingency Fund. In addition, a detailed investigative plan will be developed that may include more targeted necropsies; further testing of samples for biotoxins, bacterial or viral agents; and diagnostic pathology services. Finally, through the UME process all finding and interpretations undergo national and international scientific review.
When will you have some results to share?
The investigative team will begin developing an investigative plan in the next few months. You can track the progress of our investigation from our main UME webpage.
Is there a risk to humans?
Guadalupe fur seals are wild animals and may injure people if approached closely. It is not clear yet if there is any infectious disease risk to human health through contact with these animals.
Are there any risks to pets?
Pets should always be kept away from marine mammals, particularly diseased or dead marine mammals.
How many Guadalupe fur seal UMEs have previously occurred in the United States?
This is the second Guadalupe fur seal UME in the United States. The first UME occurred in Washington and Oregon states in 2007–2009 and involved a total of 29 animals. The cause of the event was not determined.
Where can I find additional information on Guadalupe fur seals and other UMEs?
You can find more information on our websites:
What should people do if they encounter a live or dead Guadalupe fur seal on the beach?
Please immediately contact your local stranding network or local authorities to report a live or dead stranded fur seal. In California, call (866) 767-6114. In addition:
- Do not touch the fur seal.
- Don’t allow pets to approach the fur seal.
- Observe the animal from a safe distance of 100 yards (safe for you and the animal).
What can I do to help the Guadalupe fur seal UME investigation?
Report sightings of stranded animals to (866) 767-6114, and let the stranding network evaluate the animal to see if rehabilitation is necessary. Also remember that just because a fur seal or sea lion is on shore, it doesn’t necessarily mean the animal needs assistance.
What should I do if I witness someone harassing a Guadalupe fur seal in the water or on the beach?
To report violations, please contact NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at (800) 853-1964.
What is the UME Contingency Fund?
MMPA section 405 (16 USC 1421d) establishes the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Fund, describing its purposes and how the public can donate to the fund. According to the MMPA, the fund “shall be available only for use by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior:
- To compensate persons for special costs incurred in acting in accordance with the contingency plan issued under section 1421c(b) of this title or under the direction of an Onsite Coordinator for an unusual mortality event.
- For reimbursing any stranding network participant for costs incurred in preparing and transporting tissues collected with respect to an unusual mortality event for the Tissue Bank.
- For care and maintenance of marine mammal seized under section 1374(c)(2)(D) of this title.”
The National Contingency Plan for Response to Unusual Marine Mammal Mortality Events outlines the types of expenses that are reimbursable under the fund and the process for requesting reimbursement.
How can deposits be made into the UME Contingency Fund?
The following can be deposited into the fund:
- Amounts appropriated to the fund.
- Other amounts appropriated to the Secretary for use with respect to UMEs.
- Amounts received by the United States in the form of gifts, devises, and bequests under subsection (d) of section 405(d) of the MMPA.