‘Prepare for the worst’: Struggling to save starving sea lions on California shores
Jan. 25, 2015 Updated Jan. 27, 2015 1:07 p.m.
Sea lion pups recently brought to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach rest in their pen while being treated at the center. The number of sea lions rescued on the coast is above average for the season.
NICK AGRO, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
By ERIKA I. RITCHIE / STAFF WRITER
How to help
1. Do not approach an ailing animal; keep a distance of at least 50 yards.
2. Call Pacific Marine Mammal Center at 949-494-3050 and supply a description and location.
3. Keep others, including dogs, from approaching the animal.
4. Do not attempt to push the animal back into the ocean, pour water over it or feed it.
5. Make a donation. Pacific Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit organization that depends on public support.
For more information: pacificmmc.org
Officials puzzled by rash of distressed sea lions
Sea lion rescues on the rise; could El Nino be a factor?
Low weights among sea lion pups on remote Channel Island breeding grounds and effects of a warmer ocean on adult females and yearlings could bring record-high strandings to Southern California beaches.
Marine mammal experts say the numbers could hit even higher levels than in 2013, which federal officials called an unusual mortality event.
Already this year, staff at marine centers from Sea World in San Diego to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito are doing nearly daily rescues.
The difference this year: Starving pups showed up as early as December. Sick females and juveniles are also being found.
In the first three weeks of the year, sea lion rescues were up almost 20 percent over 2013 at some of the marine rescue centers.
The National Marine Fisheries stranding coordinator has asked centers to provide their intakes. So far this month, Sea World in San Diego has 48 and Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach has 28. Fort MacArthur in San Pedro has 73, the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute has 10, and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito has 35.
Dr. Hendrik Nollens, a veterinarian at Sea World and a member of a task force assembled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study 2013 mass strandings, is not surprised.
Where there was no advance warning for the 2013 strandings, experts had already predicted El Niño impacts on lactating mothers and yearlings for 2015. Centers were told to gear up.
El Niño brings warm ocean waters that push down nutrient-dense upwellings that fuel ecosystem richness, forcing sea lions to hunt longer distances and do deeper dives for their prey.
“This year could be a perfect storm,” Nollens said. “An El Niño climate event affecting the females and yearlings and something still unexplained affecting the skinny pups.”
Peter Wallerstein, who owns a nonprofit organization that helps rescue sea lions for Fort MacArthur, has been out on the beaches between Pacific Palisades and Long Beach nearly every day. When schoolchildren on a beach cleanup surrounded a skinny pup, Wallerstein wrangled him in.
“Usually, a healthy sea lion will run into the water away from people,” Wallerstein said. “People do silly things. They want to get close, but sea lions have 10 times greater bite than a pit bull and they’re very quick on land, unlike a seal, which drags its body.”
The pup was one of more than 30 he’s taken to Marine Mammal Center at Fort MacArthur. The center is already 20 percent ahead of January 2013 numbers, and there’s still a week to go.
“The difference is we’re not just seeing little pups,” said Lauren Palmer, a veterinarian there. “Females and yearlings are coming in with respiratory issues and elevated abnormalities in their blood work. It’s really hard to wrap our head around the story of what’s happening.”
Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory working with National Marine Fisheries, has studied sea lion populations on San Miguel Island for more than two decades, looking for factors influencing trends in populations including El Niño, disease and competition for food.
She works with National Marine Fisheries Service as part of a research program established on San Miguel Island in 1968 bolstered with funds from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted in 1972.
Melin travels to the island twice a year – once in September and once in February – to study behavior, check for disease and weigh sample newborns. She’s watched the sea lion population rise 5 percent each year until 2000. Researchers estimate there are now more than 300,000 sea lions colonizing the Channel Island rookeries.
Each June 100,000 sea lions come to the Navy-owned island. The breeding colony about 60 miles from Ventura Harbor is one of the largest in the world.
When sea lions converged on the island in 2012, there was no sign of a problem. A year later, nearly 70 percent of the newborns had died.
Many were left for days waiting on the beaches starving and losing weight. Marine mammal centers in 2013 took in more than 1,500 sea lion pups – five times higher than in a normal year.
The mothers – to nourish themselves and provide milk – swam as far as 120 miles north toward Monterrey in search of sardines and anchovies.
In the El Niño climate, some of these are scarce and they feed on less fatty fish producing less nutrient-rich milk. The mothers generally spend three to four days hunting. Diminished prey can make them stay out for six days.
In their struggle to survive, pups followed other, older sea lions out into the ocean too early. Those that made it littered Southern California beaches. Thousands more died on the islands along the way. Melin that year recorded pups at only half their previous weights.
Last year, sea lions produced just half the number of pups following the high death rate. But their weights were closer to the ideal – 37 pounds. Stranding numbers were normal.
When Melin traveled to San Miguel last September, the weights were down again. But sometimes the pups rebound. She noticed that not all of them were skinny. In some cases it seemed the mothers had figured it out and still had plump pups. She reported her findings to National Marine Fisheries, who funded another research trip out last month.
But the skinny pups had only gained 4 pounds. Melin put GPS tags on a dozen females to track their foraging habits. The tags will likely stay attached until April. Melin will compare that data with GPS tags put on sea lions after the 2013 strandings.
Later this month, she will go out again.
“We’ve told the centers to prepare for the worst,” she said.
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