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Local News

Wave of Stranded Sea Lion Pups Taxes Rescue Resources While Officials Seek Cause

Over 100 malnourished pups reported in Santa Barbara County in 2013, with increase showing no sign of tapering off

A spike in the number of sickly sea lion pups found stranded on Southern California beaches this year has wildlife officials sounding the alarm and overloaded rescue centers scrambling to keep up.

Most of the California sea lion pups washing up on shore over the last three months are emaciated, underweight and dehydrated, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Federal officials have declared “an unusual mortality event” and convened a working group to investigate the cause and plan a response.

Larger numbers of stranded pups began appearing in January and the increase has been observed in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. The number is almost three times higher than the historical average, the NOAA says.

To say that rescue centers are busy is an understatement, said Dr. Sam Dover, head veterinarian and president of the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, or CIMWI, in Santa Barbara.

“This year is the worst we’ve seen,” he told Noozhawk. “There’s some thought that it might start tapering off, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Experts don’t know the cause of the increase, but Dover and others think it’s mainly a food source issue, with fewer sardines and anchovies in the ocean.

“There’s a whole network of people who do what we do, all up and down the coast, and we’re all pretty much seeing the exact same thing: a very increased number of underweight, thin California sea lion pups,” he said.

“Most of them were born last June so we know they’re 9 months old, and they were probably just recently weaned,” he added. “Some of them are learning to find fish and some of them don’t even understand what a fish is.”

Older sea lions can hunt larger fish by swimming farther away from the Channel Islands — the primary rookeries of California sea lions — but younger ones can only catch small fish.

A malnourished and lethargic California sea lion pup rests on a jetty near the Ventura Pier. (Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute photo)
A malnourished and lethargic California sea lion pup rests on a jetty near the Ventura Pier. (Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute photo)

“We’re seeing thin moms on the breeding islands, which means they’re having trouble finding fish,” Dover said. “That means their milk supply is lower and the birth weights are lower, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

Dover said CIMWI staff are rescuing and rehabilitating dozens of malnourished animals at their facility on the Gaviota coast.

With lower body weights, the animals have weaker immune systems as well, so it’s a matter of fattening them up, giving them fluids and antibiotics, and getting them comfortable catching and eating fish, Dover said. Many of the rescued pups have parasites that healthier animals in the wild can fight off, like lung worms, tapeworms and external lice.

CIMWI has have already released 15 of the sea lions back into the wild — usually off boats near the islands — and has about 25 animals it’s currently tending to. Four pups were brought in Thursday and two more Friday.

In the past, CIMWI often used Condor Express vessels, as the late Capt. Fred Benko was a big supporter and board member. Dover said his death in early March has been difficult to get over.

“We’re moving on, not by choice,” he said.

CIMWI’s indoor area is for sick, weak sea lions, which spend their days on heat pads, protected from the weather. When they get stronger and begin competing well for food, they’re eventually placed in the outdoor pool to get comfortable with catching fish so they can be released back into the wild, Dover said.

An emaciated California sea lion pup receives intravenous fluids at the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute facility on the Gaviota coast. The colored marking on its head is a nontoxic, nonpermanent paint used by staff to identify each animal. (Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute photo)
An emaciated California sea lion pup receives intravenous fluids at the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute facility on the Gaviota coast. The colored marking on its head is a nontoxic, nonpermanent paint used by staff to identify each animal. (Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute photo)

In Santa Barbara County, 108 sea lions have been reported as being admitted to rehabilitation facilities through March 24. Since 2008, the most admissions the county had reported in the first three months of the year had been 25. In all, the five Southern California coastal counties have reported a total of 948 admissions, and the influx shows no signs of slowing.

Other pinniped species — fin-footed mammals — have normal stranding rates right now, officials say.

“Unusual mortality events” are declared under criteria from the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and apply to stranding rates that are unexpected and require an immediate response. There have been 57 such declarations since the program began in 1991, most commonly for California sea lions, bottlenose dolphins and manatees.

This is the sixth “unusual mortality event” for California sea lions. According to the NOAA Office of Protected Resources, three were prompted by domoic acid toxicity in 1998, 2000 and 2002, and one each for leptospirosis in 1991 and El Niño conditions in 1992.

CIMWI and the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center are both working with overload capacities of sea lion pups and need help to buy enough fish and supplies for them all. The Marine Mammal Center has rescued 179 sea lions this year as of Thursday, according to KEYT.

Both centers are nonprofit organizations run by volunteers, and tax-deductible donations can be sent to the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, 389 N. Hope Ave., Santa Barbara 93110, and to the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, at P.O. Box 4250, Santa Barbara 93140. Click here to make an online PayPal donation.

Dover said CIMWI staff do a lot of driving — all over Ventura County and then to its facility in Gaviota — and the organization would welcome gas cards and vehicle donations, too, as well as a commercial washing machine and dryer.

If you find a stranded marine mammal, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History recommends contacting the following organizations:

Seals, Sea Lions or Dolphins

» Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, 805.687.3255

» The Marine Mammal Center, San Luis Obispo, 415.289.7325

» Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, 805.687.3255

» Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, Ventura, 805.567.1505

Sea Otters

» Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 805.682.4711 x157

» California Hotline, 831.648.4829

Dead Dolphins or Whales

» Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 805.682.4711 x157

For any dead animal, contact the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department or Animal Control.

» Santa Barbara County Animal Services, in the Public Health Department

» Santa Barbara County Public Works Department

» San Luis Obispo County Animal Services

» San Luis Obispo County Public Works

» Ventura County Animal Services

» Ventura County Public Works

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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