Ocean Climate and Seal Condition

Background: The condition of many marine mammals varies with fluctuations in productivity and food supply in the ocean basin where they forage. Prey is impacted by physical environmental variables such as cyclic warming trends. The weaning weight of northern elephant seal pups, Mirounga angustirostris, being closely linked to maternal condition, indirectly reflects prey availability and foraging success of pregnant females in deep waters of the northeastern Pacific. The aim of this study was to examine the effect of ocean climate on foraging success in this deep-diving marine mammal over the course of three decades, using cohort weaning weight as the principal metric of successful resource accrual. Results: The mean annual weaning weight of pups declined from 1975 to the late 1990s, a period characterized by a large-scale, basin-wide warm decadal regime that included multiple strong or long-duration El Niños; and increased with a return to a cool decadal regime from about 1999 to 2004. Increased foraging effort and decreased mass gain of adult females, indicative of reduced foraging success and nutritional stress, were associated with high ocean temperatures. Conclusion: Despite ranging widely and foraging deeply in cold waters beyond coastal thermoclines in the northeastern Pacific, elephant seals are impacted significantly by ocean thermal dynamics. Ocean warming redistributes prey decreasing foraging success of females, which in turn leads to lower weaning mass of pups. Annual fluctuations in weaning mass, in turn, reflect the foraging success of females