In the last few months, over 1,000 stranded and starving sea lions have been found along the shores of Southern California with 163 discovered through the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center. But scientists don’t yet know why the unprecedented and alarming number of young sea lions are turning up along California’s coastline.
Though it is typical for juveniles to haul themselves out of the water to rest in popular haunts like oil platforms, marine or navigation buoys, and the Channel Islands from which many of them hail, there is usually some sort of problem when they venture to the coastal mainland, said Peter Howorth, principal senior biologist at the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center. Animal rescue centers in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties have been caring for the pups, but they are reaching capacity and can now only take those in the most critical of conditions. Consequently, beachgoers may begin to witness an increase in distressed sea lions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has sent a warning to the public urging all to avoid wild marine mammals. Howorth asked people who run across a potentially sick or threatened sea lion to call his organization at (805) 687-3255. “Leave it alone, do not get it wet, do not try to get it into the water, and do not feed it,” he said.
Experts continue to observe the underweight and dehydrated pups on the beaches and in the rescue centers to pinpoint a potential cause of their distress, taking blood and tissue samples from live and dead specimens and testing them for various infectious agents. Howorth explained that experts are also considering prey availability. When sea lions lack proper nutrition, usually sourced from fish and squid, they suffer from starvation and increased risk of infection. Looking at potential infectious agents such as domoic acid, a neurotoxin found in phytoplankton, is therefore necessary to ensure that nothing has been overlooked. “All of this indicates a lack of prey,” said Howorth. “Nothing points away from it, so we can’t say some of these animals have domoic acid [poisoning].” Currently, the number of sea lions in Santa Barbara who were rescued but failed to survive is modest — around 15 have died in captivity.
The Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center (SBMMC) is part of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, a nationwide rescue organization licensed by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. SBMMC is the only organization authorized to rescue animals in Santa Barbara County. All participants in the network, which includes the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, have been exchanging weekly reports with each other and NOAA Fisheries regarding their findings.
NOAA coordinators stress the importance of avoiding contact with the animals. While the layman’s rescue efforts may be well-intentioned, biologists insist that people leave such efforts to professionals. “All rescue actions increase the stress on the animal, puts the person at risk of injury from these wild animals, and is illegal without authorization,” said Sarah Wilkin, NOAA Fisheries southwest regional coordinator, in a press release. Furthermore, sea lions are capable of seriously injuring people and other animals; accordingly, the public is advised to keep pets away from them to avoid injury. The scientists’ main objective is to rehabilitate the sea lions for safe release back into the wild, but even so, some continue to strand themselves several times over, in which case they become research subjects.