Baby sea lions are washing up on shore by the hundreds in California, malnourished and suffering from a range of other maladies. 70 percent of all newborn sea lions may be dying. Some wash up already dead.
In a rare move, the federal government has declared it an Unusual Mortality Event, meaning that it is a serious problem requiring immediate attention. That declaration could make resources available for more help.
Rescue organizations are maxing out their resources caring for the pups, including food, volunteers and medication.
“It is really sad to see these extremely malnourished, underweight animals. We can see their ribs, their hips, their spine,” Sea World San Diego rescuer Jody Westberg said. The pups are less than a year old — mostly six to eight months old – and weigh half of what they should at their age.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Susan Chivers says sea lion pup strandings are a normal event in April or May, but this year they have started earlier and at a rate close to four or more times the norm. In Los Angeles County alone, 400 pups have stranded in 2013. In the same period last year, 36 pups stranded.
“It’s like we’re getting an entire year’s worth of cases in one quarter,” said Marine Mammal Care Center’s Operations Director David Bard.
Experts don’t know what is causing the strandings. National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Sharon Melin says there are few clues to guide their investigation. The most striking aspect of the strandings is that the pups should still be with their mothers. They are too young to survive on their own.
One theory is that the mothers left their pups behind when they had to go further out to sea than usual to find food. Melin says that “they’re just not capable at this age. They can’t dive deep, they’re not very efficient swimmers. They’re not old enough and big enough to be out on their own. They’re really naive and trying to make their way.”
What to do if you see a stranded sea lion:
1. Don’t approach it because it may get spooked and head back for the ocean, where it is harder to catch.
2. Call the California Wildlife Center at 310-458-WILD (9453) or Sea World’s help line at 1-800-541-SEAL (7325).
3. Contact a lifeguard.
Photo credit: iStockphoto