STARVING SEA LIONS WASHING ASHORE BY THE HUNDREDS IN CALIFORNIA
By the time Wendy Leeds reached him, the sea lion pup had little hope of surviving. Like more than 1,450 other sea lions that have washed up on California beaches this year, in what animal experts call a growing crisis for the animal, this 8-month-old pup was starving, stranded and hundreds of miles from a mother who still needed to nurse him and teach him to hunt and feed. Ribs jutted from his velveteen coat. The pup had lain on the beach for hours, becoming the target of an aggressive dog before managing to wriggle onto the deck of a milliondollar oceanfront home, where the owner shielded him with an umbrella and called animal control. In came Leeds, an animal-care expert
at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which like other California rescue centers is being inundated with calls about lost, emaciated sea lions. “It’s getting crazy,” she said. Experts suspect that unusually warm waters are driving fish and other food away from the coastal islands where sea lions breed and wean their young. As the mothers spend time away from the islands hunting for food, hundreds of starving pups are swimming away from home and flopping ashore from San Diego to San Francisco. Many of the pups are leaving the Channel Islands, an eight-island chain off the Southern California coast, in a desperate search for food. But they are too young to travel far, dive deep or truly hunt on their own, scientists said. This year, animal rescuers are reporting five times more sea lion rescues than normal - 1,100 last month alone. The pups are turning up under fishing piers and in backyards, along inlets and on rocky cliffs. One was found curled up in a flower pot. Last week, Seaworld San Diego said it would shut its live sea lion and otter show for two weeks so it could spare six of its animal specialists for the rescue and recovery effort. “There are so many calls, we just can’t respond to them all,” Justin Viezbicke, who oversees stranding issues in California for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said on a conference call with reporters. “The reality is, we just can’t get to these animals.” As the injured animals proliferate, their encounters with humans are growing. Some people offer misguided help such as dousing the pups with water or trying to drag them back into the ocean. Others take selfies with the stranded animals, pet them or let their children pretend to ride them, rescuers said.
As Leeds approached the quaking sea lion on Capistrano Beach, she frowned at a pile of tuna near his muzzle. “Has someone been trying to feed him?” she asked. Many are sick with pneumonia, their throaty barks muted to rasping coughs. Parasites have swarmed their digestive systems. Some are so tired that they cannot scamper away when rescuers approach them with nets and towels and heft them into large pet carriers. “They come ashore because if they didn’t, they would drown,” said Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. “They’re just bones and skin. They’re really on the brink of death.” This year is the third in five years that scientists have seen such large numbers of strandings. Researchers say they worry about the long-term consequences of global warming and rising ocean temperatures on a sea lion population that has evolved over thousands of years to breed almost exclusively on the Channel Islands, relying on circulating flows of Pacific upwellings to bring anchovies, sardines and other prey. “The environment is changing too rapidly,” said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who found that pups on the Channel Islands are 44 percent underweight. “Their life history is so much slower that it’s not keeping up.”
Scientists said it was too soon to predict how these strandings and deaths could affect California’s sea lion populations, which stand at what scientists say is a healthy 300,000. As their mothers leave them to take longer, less productive foraging trips, the pups are simply not growing normally. “We do expect the population to take a drop,” Melin said. “Probably not something catastrophic, but probably a really good hit. It is going to impact the overall population eventually if we continue to have these events back to back.” Rescue and rehabilitation groups like the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, in Laguna Beach, have the feel of big-city emergency rooms. Volunteers and staff members pull up with crates of freshly beached sea lions to be weighed and examined. They shave numbers into the animals’ brown coats, warm the coldest ones in saltwater baths, and try to coax them back to health with smoothies of herring, Karo syrup, Trader Joe’s brand salmon oil and other nutrients. Many have rebounded, gaining weight and graduating from indoor holding pens and tube feedings to eating small fish and romping in outdoor pools. The gaunt new arrivals lie forlornly inside, lethargic and scrawny. The recovering ones loll outside like sunbathers on a crowded roof deck, rolling around in hose spray and occasionally flapping around the small pools in their pens. After four or five weeks, many should be ready to be released back into the ocean. But death rates are sobering, and staff members say they have to make quick and sometimes painful decisions to euthanize animals unlikely to survive. Of the 1,450 sea lions scooped up from the shores, about 720 are being treated, Viezbicke of NOAA said. Michele Hunter, the center’s director of animal care, said, “It’s very difficult to see so much death.” On Capistrano Beach, Leeds hauled the quaking sea lion into a kennel, accepted a $20 donation from the homeowner who had called in the report and headed down the highway to a fishing pier where a lifeguard had spotted another pup in the sand. This one was small and cool to her touch with ragged, unsteady breathing, so she piled both animals into the same kennel so they could keep each other warm. They seemed to bond quickly: When Leeds reached toward one, the other snapped at her hand. Within the hour, veterinary workers would decide that both pups were too starved and sick and had to be put down. For the moment, the two curled up together like a pair of brown socks for the ride back to the rescue center.