Last week I had the opportunity to work alongside the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and people from a host of organizations, including some of our OWCN members from The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC). In total, 12 of us went out to San Miguel Island to help with a long-term population monitoring study of California sea lions and northern fur seals.
Seals and Sea Lions at Sunset on the San Miguel Island Rookery
San Miguel Island is the furthest west of the Channel Islands, located 40 miles southwest of Santa Barbara. It’s home to one of the largest California sea lion rookeries, with tens of thousands of breeding animals returning yearly to the island. It’s also an important fur seal breeding area. While our work focused on these two species, all the regular pinniped visitors to California can be found here as well, including tons (which admittedly can be just 1 animal) northern elephant seals, harbor seals, Guadalupe fur seals, and even the occasional Steller sea lion. Some breed here, while others just stop by for a nap on their way through.
As someone who works in spill preparedness, the location of this rich diversity along the western side of the Santa Barbara Channel always gives me pause. It is in the shadow of oil platforms, and near the site of the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill. A spill at the wrong time of the year out there could have serious impacts on birds and marine mammals. Thankfully I wasn’t out there to respond to a spill.
Every fall the biologists of the NMFS California Current Ecosystems Program lead the
effort to tag hundreds of California sea lion and northern fur seal pups, and take samples to look for disease and health markers. Through this, and with a lot of number crunching, they are able to monitor the health of the population (and other environmental impacts). I was lucky enough to go out this year and help assess and tag the animals. Overall it seemed like a good year for the pups (at least subjectively. We’ll have to wait for NMFS to crunch the numbers) with some nice fat happy looking animals out there.
A number of other projects were discussed including spill response, disentanglement work, endangered species management and the best way to cook venison (it can’t all be work right?).
It was great to contribute to this important study and to see healthy seals and sea lions in the wild. It was also a chance to interact with other biologists, veterinarians, and researchers who work with these species. Additionally, we trained some new people on handling, tagging, and sampling techniques. Hopefully they’ll never be needed in a spill, but it’s great to know there are more people out there that can help.