Young California sea lions have been in the news lately. Emaciated, dehydrated, hungry, and in some cases dying or dead, hundreds have appeared on the beaches and shorelines of southern California this year. (So far about 1,300 have been rescued; last year the number was about 100. For updated numbers, visit NOAA’s strandings website.) Many marine mammal rescue centers are crowded and their resources stretched thin.
Most of these animals are last year’s pups according to NOAA (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Starving yearlings are not unusual. Their first year is tough. What is unusual this year is the number of animals, their age and the time of year. So far no one is sure why so many so young are in such need.
In response, NOAA Fisheries declared this an Unusual Mortality Event starting in January due to the significant numbers of California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) strandings in five counties — from San Diego north to Santa Barbara. This designation means that the current situation is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of a marine mammal population, and demands immediate response, including investigation into the cause. Similar mortality events in the past have been caused by leptospirosis, El Niño conditions resulting in food scarcity, or diatom blooms producing toxic domoic acid.
Monterey Bay is north of the areas hardest hit and I haven’t seen or encountered reports of similar sea lion conditions in our area. However, local marine mammal rescue centers are supporting the centers in the south by taking some of the animals, and so are feeling the strain, too. In a couple of months, pregnant sea lions will be giving birth on offshore islands. Many people will be watching this summer to see if the current problem is restricted to last year’s pups.
What can you do?
If you see a sea lion (or any marine mammal) in distress, the only thing to do is call for help and keep others away from the animal until help arrives. Do NOT get close (these animals bite) or attempt a rescue of any marine mammal! You need to know what you’re doing. (Note: Harbor seals will start pupping soon and a young seal on the beach this time of year is a pup just waiting for mom to return. It doesn’t need your assistance. Again, if in doubt, call for expert help.)
If you’re on the central or northern California coast, contact The Marine Mammal Center rescue hotline at 415-289-7325. (Their range is about 600 miles from San Luis Obispo to Mendocino counties.) For Monterey Bay, they have a base in Moss Landing and the rescue hotline is 831-633-6298. You can also help by donating to The Marine Mammal Center or a wildlife rescue center near you. To keep up-to-date on the situation, visit NOAA’s UME website.