Malibu awash with poisoned sea lions

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California Wildlife Center staff Cynthia Reyes and Christin Joy, along with trained volunteers, rescue a sea lion Thursday at Las Flores Beach. The center has received at least two calls per day reporting the stranded sea lions, most of which are pregnant females, suffering from domoic acid poisoning. Photos by Roxanne McCann

The local wildlife rescue center has been receiving at least two calls per day about beached sea lions suffering from domoic acid poisoning.

By Laura Tate/Editor

At least two sea lions per day have beached themselves on Malibu shores since Memorial Day weekend, disoriented and suffering from active seizures caused by domoic acid poisoning, with several dying.

The California Wildlife Center, which has a contract with the City of Malibu to rescue wildlife in the area, has responded to 32 calls about stranded sea lions since May 28, rescuing 17, while others either were gone when CWC staff arrived, had died or were found to be healthy and eventually went back to sea.

The beached sea lions have mostly been pregnant females, said Susan Eastman, executive director of the CWC, “which is tragic,” she said, noting that by the time the mother sea lions receive treatment, the seizures cause the fetuses to abort, or are stillborn, and the “medications given to the sea lions always jeopardize the fetus.”

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin found in ocean algae. However, when larger algae blooms occur, which has been the case the past several weeks, the sea lions and other wildlife are more at risk for poisoning. The sea lions, as well as seabirds and dolphins, feed on marine life such as sardines, anchovies, clams and mussels, which consume the algae, accumulating concentrated amounts of toxin in their systems. The toxin does not affect the marine life, but causes neurological disorders in the sea lions and birds, resulting in disorientation, seizures, loss of muscle control and even death. The pregnant sea lions are feeding much more, Eastman said, which is why they are perhaps more susceptible to poisoning.

A great concern of CWC staff is that the public stays away from beached sea lions.

“We had so many people on beaches trying to shoo them back to water, or pour water on them,” Eastman said, “but that is not good-usually when strand, they are cold and need to warm up.”

For their own protection, as well as the well being of the animal, Eastman and Cynthia Reyes, CWC marine mammal coordinator, recommend leaving the animal alone and calling the center.

“People shouldn’t approach the animals,” Reyes said. “A lot of people are petting them or trying to return them to the water … [they should] keep a distance. We know it looks distressing, but they should wait.”

Reyes and her assistant, Christin Joy, have been responding to calls daily throughout Malibu with Reyes’ pager going off as early as 7 a.m. and working as late as 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. Reyes said they’ve received calls about strandings from all over Malibu, including Zuma, Malibu Colony, Las Flores and Sycamore beaches.

The two, with trained volunteers, catch the animals, some weighing as much as 237 pounds, and take them to Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro for treatment and care.

David Bard, operations manager at the marine mammal care center, said the sea lions are put on anticonvulsants to control the seizures, are hydrated, and once they’re stabilized and eating, are evaluated and then taken off the meds. Bard said several have died, most are in the early stages of rehab and one is scheduled for release this Friday.

There are many theories as to why the large algae blooms are occurring, from warmer weather to agricultural and polluted runoff reaching ocean waters. “There isn’t one thing that we can say that this is the source; there are multivariables,” said Jose Bacallao, senior aquarist at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.