California isn’t just in the middle of a water crisis. It’s also going through a sea lion crisis.
Hundreds of sick and starving sea lion pups are washing up on beaches from San Diego to San Francisco, and scientists say they don’t know when it will end. New numbers released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Tuesday show that an unprecedented 1,800 California sea lions have been admitted to rehab facilities across the state this year.
“This could be the new normal — a changed environment that we’re dealing with now,” said Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, the largest of all the rehab facilities.
Warmer ocean waters are forcing mothers to leave their pups behind in the Channel Islands and go deeper into the ocean in search of food. The pups are striking out on their own, and since they are too weak to swim long distances, getting stranded on shore, sometimes even making their way to busy roads. Persevero, a young sea lion, was suffering from dehydration and malnutrition when it was rescued by a park ranger from a highway near Fort Funston last month.
"These pups are desperate for food, but they are too small and weak to look for food themselves," Johnson said.
There are currently 750 sea lions living at rehab facilities across California. On Wednesday, there were 225 sea lions at the Sausalito facility, where they are receiving much-needed nutrition and care before being released back into the Pacific.
Since most are only eight months old, they are also learning how to catch fish to survive in the wild.
Usually by this time every year, the center sees a handful of adults, but no sea lion pups. The center has rescued 546 sea lions this year, an unusually high number. Forty-two healthy sea lions were successfully released back into the wild since Jan. 1.
Not all pups make it however. Some die or have to be euthanized.
“In the first 10 weeks of 2015, we have rescued more than half the number of animals we rescued during the entirety of 2014,” Johnson said. The center has rescued 598 animals so far this year (that number includes northern elephant seals and Pacific harbor seal pups, which are arriving in numbers that are normal for the season at this point). Last year, the total number of animals rescued was 1,030.
Visitors packed the Marine Mammal Center over the weekend, eager to get a glimpse of volunteers weighing pups or feeding them fish smoothies. Some of the pups were active, barking, splashing in their pools or playing with their lunch (herring flown in from Alaska), while others like Persevero took a nap.
“We want people to realize sea lions are friendly, but they will bite,” Johnson said. “We ask people to not approach, touch or remove a stranded marine mammal as this is both unsafe and illegal. They can call our 24-hour rescue hotline.”
Sometimes the center receives reports of people harrassing sea lions with sticks and water. Some even try to take selfies with them as they lie stranded on a beach.
Johnson said that if warmer waters persist, the focus will need to shift to long-term solutions, addressing the ocean’s three primary stressors: overfishing, pollution and global warming.
“We know everything is connected — a change in the winds is leading to thousands of sea lions stranding on the beach,” Johnson says. “It’s all the more reason we should be paying close attention to the fate of the sea lions, a top predator in the ocean.”
You can help the Marine Mammal Center by donating at www.marinemammalcenter.org/donate.
If you find a stranded sea lion, call the 24-hour rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325).