Starving sea lions beaching in record numbers

The year 2013 has broken all records in the past 40 years for the number of California sea lions beaching themselves in Malibu and Southern California—and the year is still far from over. The mysterious mass strandings, which began in January and have continued, are occurring from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

More than 948 malnourished sea lions have been picked up in Southern California since the beginning of the year, with 395 of those in Los Angeles County (as of March 24) and 118 from Malibu alone, according to Victoria Harris, board president of the California Wildlife Center (CWC) in Malibu.

The CWC, which is tasked with rescuing stranded marine mammals along the 27 miles of Malibu’s coastline, has been inundated with calls. Lack of space at their facility means they can only move some animals to less populated beaches, or rescue stronger ones that are more likely to survive.

“[We’re] getting 50 calls a day,” said Harris. “It’s heartbreaking.”

In the second-worst year for sea lion strandings, 1998, 740 sea lions came ashore in Southern California for the entire year. Most of those strandings were found to be caused by the El Nino year, as well as domoic acid poisoning from toxic algae. No one knows yet what is causing juveniles to beach themselves from cold and malnourishment, but it appears to be a shortage of anchovies, sardines and other fish.

“We have not ruled out medical causes, but nutritional deficiency seems to be the primary issue,” said Dr. Lauren Palmer, a veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, in a telephone interview. “We don’t know why, but there just aren’t enough prey fish out there for sea lions this size.”

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Nearly all of the sea lions being affected were born in the summer of 2012 in the Channel Islands rookeries. They have been leaving the islands and swimming toward the mainland looking for food. Those found have been consistently emaciated and dehydrated, and very underweight for their age—often weighing 40 percent less than normal.

Marine mammals rescued in Malibu (as well as the rest of Los Angeles County) are taken to the Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC) in San Pedro. Unfortunately, MMCC has been swamped since January, and is running at capacity. Their director, David Bard, said they had “over 100” young sea lions as of March 25.

When MMCC is full, rescued sea lions from Malibu have no place to go, and must wait until openings become available. The CWC marine mammal team has found this very frustrating, according to Harris, and have moved some distressed sea lions from crowded beaches to beaches with less human disturbance and more kelp beds as they await openings. They have been forced to do triage, judging which ones may have the best chance for survival if picked up.

Even so, “taking the sea lions to [San Pedro] is just a stopgap measure,” said Jeff Hall, marine mammal coordinator for CWC, “because when they’re recovered and released back to the ocean, there probably still isn’t going to be enough food.”

In an effort to create more space, MMCC and other facilities sent 30 animals to a facility in Sausalito, which is less crowded because the stranding problem is not occurring in northern California. More animals will be sent north as space allows.

On March 26, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared the strandings an “Unusual Mortality Event,” an action that frees up additional federal funding for rescue, rehabilitation and research, as well as scientific investigation into the causes.

With government money available, CWC has been asked to prepare a proposal for the temporary housing of rescued elephant seals. If CWC is able to keep up to 25 elephant seals at its facility, then MMCC will be freer to focus on the debilitated sea lions.

“Elephant seals don’t need large pools during initial rehab, so we could house them temporarily instead of San Pedro,” Harris said. “But we’d have to set up a separate kitchen, get 300 pounds of fish per day, buy industrial blenders, put up large pens, pay for waste removal, etc.”

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