Venomous sea snakes arrive with El Niño*

yellow-sea-snake-calif-herp.jpgYellow-bellied sea snake by CaliforniaHerps website, photographer William Flaxington.

In its latest advisory on the potential impact of the El Niño season coming up, Heal the Bay is warning about sightings of a deadly sea snake that is rarely seen off Southern California — except during El Niño events when our waters are warmer. At last one of the yellow-bellied sea snakes has been seen on the beach in Oxnard, HTB says. Do NOT handle this snake. It is highly venomous. The yellow-bellied sea snake lives in tropical waters and, according to the CaliforniaHerps website, is "probably the most widely distributed snake in the world, inhabiting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including the coasts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Mexico, including Baja California, and Central America."

From Heal the Bay:

Riding the warm ocean currents across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the only sea snake that ventures completely out to sea has been spotted in Southern California waters and beaches as far north as Oxnard for the first time in 30 years. The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake has some of the most poisonous venom in the world, and is a descendant from Asian cobras and Australian tiger snakes. This sea snake is a harbinger of El Niño–it typically lives in warm tropical waters. The last time the yellow-bellied snake was spotted in California was in the early 1980’s during an El Niño. Scientists are calling for the public’s help to confirm occurrences of these sea snakes in California and your sighting could be published in scientific journals. A recent sighting took place in the Silver Strand beach area in Oxnard. As the yellow-bellied sea snake is highly venomous, the public should not handle it. Instead, take photos, note the exact location, and report any sightings in California to California Herps and sea snake researchers.

Warmer ocean water, the weather changes that come with it and the changing sea levels of El Niño combine to create a chain of effects along our coast. "Based upon historic El Niño events like 1982-83 and 1997-98, much of Southern California’s beach sand may disappear, coastal bluffs will suffer serious erosion, and some homes and businesses will flood," Heal the Bay says. "The suite of impacts associated with both El Niño and climate change is also a serious stressor to ocean life."

We have already noted the crisis with sea lions as their food sources are chased out to sea by the arrival of warm water. Unusual fish and whales continue to be seen, which is interesting for we humans but indicates a definite interruption in the natural balance offshore. Just this month, a pod of pilot whales was photographed off Orange County. International Bird Rescue in San Pedro this reported it was caring for a Red-footed Booby and a Masked Booby, both birds unusual for this area.

More from Heal the Bay's briefing:

During an El Niño, marine life has to contend with stress due to extreme fluctuations in sea level, as well as warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification due to climate change. In the tropical western Pacific, climate change will more than double the likelihood of extreme changes in sea levels that could harm coral reefs. Extreme sea level drops in the western Pacific will also last longer, putting coral under even more stress. During the 1997-98 El Niño, sea levels dropped up to a foot in the western Pacific, leaving coral reefs high and dry. 2015’s El Niño has already caused the sea level to drop seven inches in the western tropical Pacific Ocean.

Back in California, El Niño also quashes the usual upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich seawater along our coastline. The cold California current supports our oceanic food chain: from plankton and fish species, to kelp forests and marine mammals. Fish have responded to warming ocean temperatures this year by migrating north or out to sea in search of cooler waters. Consequently, sea lions have had to venture further from their young to look for those fish as their primary food source. This has had a cascading effect on California sea lion populations, leading to an unusual mortality event for sea lions this year. Following the warm ocean water, an influx of southern, more tropical marine life have moved up along California this year, such as whale sharks, pelagic red crabs, and hammerhead sharks….

El Niño-caused sea level rise, coupled with sea levels rising from ice sheet melt associated with climate change, is projected to lead to more coastal flooding, shrinking beaches, and shoreline erosion. This year’s El Niño has western U.S. cities planning for coastal flooding. Higher sea levels, high tides and storm surges that force waves well past their usual reach pose very real threats. And when these forces coincide, such as during an El Niño, significant inundation can lay siege to coastal communities, freshwater supplies, wastewater treatment plants, power plants, and other infrastructure -- not to mention public health and the environment.

Locally we have several communities that are particularly susceptible to coastal flooding and erosion. Venice Beach, San Pedro, and Wilmington are some of the most vulnerable local communities to flooding, according to a USC Sea Grant study examining sea level rise impacts for coastal communities in the City of Los Angeles.

*8:30 p.m. update: I'm told the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles collected a sea snake from the Oxnard area and that herpetology curator Greg Pauly will be taking tissue samples, conducting tests and preserving the snake on Saturday.


More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Pacific stories on LA Observed:
Bruce Brown, surfing filmmaker of 'The Endless Summer,' dies at 80
John Severson, 83, founder of Surfer magazine
Time for some weather geeking
Superbugs? Toilet to tap is safer than surfing*
Our big tsunami will come direct from Alaska
Santa Monica tsunami forecast: everything you should know
Hurricane Patricia approaches Mexico at 'incredible' strength
Venomous sea snakes arrive with El Niño*