Rescuing Sea Lion Pups
Climate Change Hits Sea Lions in the Santa Barbara Channel
Peter Howorth is a big crunch of a man with a big crunch of a handshake. In his line of work, both attributes are vital. For the past 50 years, Howorth has been capturing sea lions, seals, whales, and other marine mammals. It’s an up-close-and-personal endeavor not for the weak of grip. Initially, Howorth sold his creatures to zoos, circuses, and sea parks for display. It was good money. During the past 39 years, though, Howorth has been atoning for his role in the marine-mammal skin trade. As chief cook and bottle washer for the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center — the organization he started — Howorth has made it his mission to patrol the coast of Santa Barbara County in search of seals, sea lions, dolphins, and whales to rescue, rehab, and release.
He’s never been busier.
In the past three months, Howorth estimates he’s been getting 50 phone calls a day, all with the same urgent message: sea lion pup in distress. Due to radical changes in coastal ocean temperatures, sea lion pups are washing ashore by the thousands, starving to death. With coastal waters 4-8 degrees warmer this year than last, the squid population usually parked off the coast in spectacular abundance — a key food source for sea lions — has hauled its teeming biomass north. Additionally, for reasons still not clear, the sardine population, an oil-rich staple of the sea lion diet, has tanked so precipitously that federal regulators — for the first time ever — will declare sardine fishing off-limits. Into this empty bowl are thrown all the pups born in June; that’s when 90 percent of all sea lions are born. Now 9 months old, they’re not yet competent to fend for themselves and have to rely on their mothers for foraging. But the mothers, struggling to maintain weight and milk supplies for the next generation of pups, can’t deliver, so the pups must strike out on their own.
Little surprise then that most of the pups Howorth finds have burned through all their body fat and blubber. A typical 9-month-old sea lion should weigh between 50 and 70 pounds, but the pups Howorth is finding weigh about 20 pounds, roughly what a sea lion typically weighs at birth.
Santa Barbara beaches have been hit especially hard. Listless, button-eyed pups — with bunched-up fur coats two sizes too big — desperately search for a warm patch of sand or rock, safe from the dangerous curiosity of dogs and humans. Given that California’s two main sea lion rookeries are located just off Santa Barbara’s coast — San Miguel and San Nicolas islands — that’s not surprising. But the challenge of stranded pups transcends Santa Barbara. California has only seven designated marine mammal rehab centers, all now scrambling to accommodate the unprecedented onslaught.
According to the most recent count prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2,460 stranded sea lions — almost all pups — have been scooped off California beaches during the first three and a half months of 2015. In all 12 months of 2014, only 621 were rescued. In the previous worst year ever — 2013 — the total was 1,171. Looking at the past 10 years as a whole, NOAA calculates this year’s rescue count is 20 times higher than average.
For Howorth, who’s licensed by NOAA to pick up all distressed sea lions in Santa Barbara County, 2015 has been a hellacious year. Along the City of Santa Barbara’s waterfront alone, 54 sea lion pups were rescued in the first three months of this year. For all of 2014, the number was 45. The year before was 49. As of last week he’d picked up 409. His previous record — two years ago — was 398. And that, he added, was for an entire year. “I don’t like breaking records,” he said.
To date, Santa Barbara has no reports of sea lion attacks like the one in Mission Bay on April 5. There, a sea lion lunged over a boat railing to snatch a fish out of the hands of a 62-year-old man then posing with his trophy catch. The sea lion not only got the fish but also bit the fisherman and took him overboard — albeit briefly — to the bottom of Mission Bay. A few days prior, a 5-year-old child was bitten in the face. In Santa Barbara, by contrast, encounters between humans and sea lions have been more benign. In February, Ron Gist was taking his 10-year-old daughter for a kayak cruise in the Santa Barbara Harbor when a sea lion leaped on deck and snuggled under Gist’s arms.
The quick-and-easy culprit in all this, of course, is El Niño and the vast mass of subtropical warm ocean water that swamped the California coast beginning last year. This chased north much of the aquatic life that depends on colder temperatures. It also suppressed the necessary upwelling of colder waters from the ocean bottom, rich in nutrient life crucial to sustaining the abundance of larger creatures found in these waters. Compounding matters has been the hottest, driest, and most violent drought in decades. Without rainfall, there’s been no runoff to the ocean. This deprivation, in turn, makes a nutrient-starved environment that’s much more anemic. All this has served to undermine the normal aquatic food chain. Without upwelling and runoff, the phytoplankton have gone hungry, as have the zooplankton that feed on them, and ultimately, likewise, the bigger fish that feed on them. If sea lion pups are going without, so, too, is the ocean upon which they depend.
Given the escalating surge in violent weather extremes, there’s an understandable temptation to regard starving sea lions as a reflection of climate change and all its attendant weather weirdness. That may prove to be the case, but ocean climatologists caution against jumping to conclusions. Wild fluctuations in ocean currents, wind patterns, and water temperatures are also part of the natural cycle. Every 30 years or so, cold-water patterns are replaced by warm-water currents. This process — back-and-forth over time — is known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Some oceanic scholars note with alarm that the cycle switch is happening too soon. Others, however, point out there have always been deviations within the normal cycle of oscillations.
Another contributing factor lies with the convoluted interplay between environmental regulation and sea lion population growth. In recent years, sea lion numbers have soared to heights that have no documented equal. According to NOAA, sea lion numbers off the California coast have doubled since 1990. Since 1972 — the year Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act — they’ve increased tenfold. Back then, California’s sea lion population was estimated at 35,000. Today, it hovers slightly above 300,000. What constitutes a healthy, sustainable balance remains a matter of speculation and debate.
Prior to congressional action, fishermen — who then as now regard sea lions as pests — routinely shot sea lions for poaching their catches or, in some cases, for just being sea lions. Until 1947, the state of California paid a bounty for sea lion scalps to keep the population down. Throughout much of the 19th century, sea lions were killed by the thousands to make oil; three sea lions were needed to produce one gallon. Plus, for thousands of years, Chumash hunted them for food and clothing.
Fast-forward to 1972 and the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). At that time, the environmental movement was just gathering steam. In a few short years, President Richard Nixon was forced to sign into law the creation of the Environmental Act and the Endangered Species Act. Fueling passage of the MMPA was public outrage that dolphins were winding up in tuna cans, baby seals were being clubbed to death, and whale populations were being decimated by floating death factories. Sea lions weren’t part of this conversation. Nor were they remotely endangered. Even so, the passage of the MMPA made it a felony to kill, harass, or even annoy a sea lion. Then, in 1990 California passed Proposition 132, banning gill-net fishing in shallow coastal waters. Among other results, this spared sea lions from getting tangled in the nets.
Howorth, by then a well-known sea mammal activist, publically supported the ban, describing how gill nets cut into a sea lion’s neck like “a wire cheese cutter.” Burly, bristly, and at times in-your-face, Howorth is a bit of a controversial figure in Santa Barbara’s fishing community, where the bill was much despised. “The fishermen took that as a personal betrayal,” he said. “I had some threats come of it.” Nothing, however, escalated beyond words. “I said, ‘Come on guys, let’s knock this shit off.’” In hindsight, Howorth expressed regret he didn’t do a better job persuading his peers to change their practices. “They thought it was just a PR problem,” he said. “They didn’t get it.” At that time, NOAA claimed more sea lions were dying in nets than being born.
Born in Manhattan, Howorth grew up near the Hudson River with his mother and brother. A water rat from an early age, Howorth’s sufficiently old-school to boast having owned a sheet rubber scuba suit before the inventon of wet suits. He served six years in the Coast Guard and worked many years as a commercial diver. Howorth estimates he spent 150 to 180 days a year underwater, six to eight hours a day. He later learned about trapping and selling sea lions from the now-legendary Dick Headley, for whom he worked. Howorth recalled hauling a 22-foot pilot whale he’d trapped for sale when he spotted a pod of whales following behind. They were vocalizing back and forth with the one he trussed up. “There was an intense connection, a loyalty,” Howorth recalled. “I found it profoundly saddening and upsetting.” That persuaded Howorth to switch sides.
In person, Howorth’s expression oscillates rapidly between a grin and a grimace. Not far below his enthusiastic congeniality lies a bitter impatience with the unconsciousness of his fellow humans. Leash-less dogs and their oblivious owners drive Howorth nuts. He likes dogs; he has one himself. People who let their dogs chase sea lions into the sea, though, are helping to kill these animals. They must not understand that heat dissipates in water 25 times faster than it does in air, he said. “Starving sea lions can’t keep themselves warm, let alone heat the ocean,” Howorth said. If people see what might be a stranded sea lion, Howorth’s urgent advice is, “Leave them alone. Call me at the Marine Mammal Center.”
Howorth finds himself equally exasperated by the selfie craze, especially when it comes to people posing with sick animals. “‘Oh, what a cute Kodiak bear. I think I’ll go pet the cubs,’” he says sarcastically. Stay away from the sea lions, he warned. “These are wild animals. They have a mouthful of sharp, pointy teeth.”
If humans bug Howorth, he’s a mushy pushover for the sea lions. “They have gobs of personality,” he exclaimed, “and lots of every kind of personality.” Howorth maintains sea lions are smarter than chimpanzees or porpoises, that they’re capable of higher logic. One sea lion Howorth kept in his early backyard marine mammal rehab center figured out how to open the door to the garage, where the frozen fish were stored. Howorth saw the sea lion turn the doorknob with his teeth. “I didn’t teach him that,” he said. “He learned that by watching me.”
There’s both art and craft to rescuing stranded sea lions. Having trapped tens of thousands over the years, Howorth knows all the dance moves. He’s calm, quick, deft, and gentle. Most of all, he’s in command. Standing between the sea lion and the ocean, Howorth places what looks like a massive flyswatter — but with netting rather than screen — over the animal. After allowing the animal to further entangle itself, he twists the handle to tie the back end of the netting, preventing the animal from backing out. Howorth keeps a couple of large kennel carriers — each big enough for a Saint Bernard — in the Tundra he’s allowed as part of his state license to drive along almost any beach. Howorth uses the net handle to slide the trapped animal to the carrier entrance and gently encourages it out. Once the sea lion is in, Howorth puts the carrier on the mechanized lift on the back of his truck and slides the crate inside. He makes it look easy.
Howorth used to take rescued animals to the backyard rehab he ran — with a core of volunteers and veterinarians — for years in the residential heart of San Roque. The most he ever had there at one time, he said, was 53. Given the noise and stench — sea lions are a loud and barky bunch and famously digest their food in just three hours — it’s astonishing the neighbors tolerated it. Because sea lions carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, NOAA increased its requirements for designated rehab centers. Last year, Howorth was forced to shut down. “We’re looking at other properties,” he said. “We need something bigger.”
Today, Howorth sends his sea lions to the Marine Mammal Center of Morro Bay, which has a capacity of 32. There, they are stabilized for two days and then sent to a Sausalito facility, the parent company capable of holding — and rehabbing — more than 300. It’s an underground railroad for sea lions.
It turns out there’s a marine mammal rehab center operating in the old Vista del Mar school grounds up the Gaviota coast. Run by former SeaWorld veterinarian Sam Dover and his wife, Ruth Dover, the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute has been in operation since 2006 and has a capacity of 32 animals. It boasts a fully equipped surgical operating theater, inside holding pens, a warming bath/shower stall (equipped with orange heating pads), and what looks like an outdoor pool/patio/Jacuzzi for sea lions, sporting a billion-dollar ocean view. Unfortunately for Howorth, the Dovers are only licensed to accept stranded Ventura County sea lions. Only if there’s a vacancy can they accept animals from Santa Barbara County. In previous years, the Dovers got two to three sea lions a day at the height of stranding season; now it’s eight or nine. Like everyone else, the Dovers are slammed.
A typical sea lion rehab takes anywhere from six to eight weeks. New arrivals are warmed up and given a three-drug cocktail to relax them and stimulate their appetites. Many animals are so far gone with starvation and so infected with parasites that getting them to eat can be a challenge. The Dovers daily dish out about 100 pounds of fish that they keep in a 40-foot freezer that uses $400 worth of electricity a month. If the new arrivals are too weak to eat, they’re fed emulsified fish smoothies. At times, they have to pry open a sea lion’s jaw, wearing welders’ gloves, to get food into the animals. Sam Dover estimates he’s forced to euthanize 10 percent of his rescues. Another 20 percent, he said, die before that is even necessary. Ideally, the pups would get their weight up to 70 pounds before being released. Because their growth is so stunted already, they are often released at 55 pounds. With successful rehabilitation efforts, the Dovers — who supervise a team of 90 volunteers — return the animals to the wilds off the Channel Islands.
The cruelest and most necessary question confronting Dover, Howorth, and anyone involved in such rescue efforts is why bother? Why not let nature take its course? It’s a dilemma that Dover seriously wrestles with. “Are we taking animals out of an environment where they were starving to death, fattening them up, and then putting them back into that very environment?” he asked. “Of course we are. Should we be doing that? The answer is still indeterminate.”
The real answer is that Dover, like Howorth, is simply driven. Growing up in the landlocked state of Missouri, Dover always dreamed of running a marine-mammal research and rescue facility. He wrote papers about marine mammals in high school. Dover justifies his intervention, arguing that humans messed up the marine environment already, so they’re responsible for dealing with the consequences. More directly, he cites the scientific information that stranded sea lions can provide about the state of the oceans. “They’re the canary in the coal mine,” he said. Fecal samples taken from the rescued sea lions analyzed by labs run by the University of Georgia and Texas A&M show that animals are antibiotic-resistant. “We’re seeing serious resistance to drugs they’ve never been given. That’s very scary,” he said, but the sea lions appear to be more resistant to new strains of antibiotics, not the older ones. “So we give ’em old-school medications,” Dover said.
Howorth has two answers to the same question. First, he contends the number of animals rescued is far less than the 431 animals NOAA estimates are killed by humans every year and the 337 seriously wounded. In other words, to the extent human intervention is keeping animals alive that would otherwise die, Howorth argued, that number is still less than the total number killed each year by humans — intentionally or otherwise — and that, he said, doesn’t include intrusions due to habitat loss or pollution. His second answer is irresistibly utilitarian. “If I wasn’t doing this, can you imagine how many calls different government agencies would be getting?” he asked. “Can you imagine the cost to the taxpayers if the Harbor Patrol, the Sheriff’s Department, the Fire Department, the CHP, the Police Department had to deal with this? And they’re not trained. They don’t know how to do what I do. They’d hurt themselves.”
Perhaps the best answer came from Michelle Berman, a marine biologist with the Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit. For 20 years, Berman has been studying the dead bodies of sea lions and other marine mammals. “Even if sea lion populations have exceeded the carrying capacity of its marine environment, Berman said, rescue efforts must take place. California beaches are too heavily used by humans and dogs. The possibility of interaction between sea lion and human — or dogs — is too high. “Sea lions are wild animals. They bite — and some carry diseases,” she said. “The practical reality is that the idea of letting nature ‘take its course’ is no longer really an option.”