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Marine Mammal Center
It began ominously in January. Young California sea lions were stranding themselves in far higher than average numbers. By February, it was a crisis. From Santa Barbara to San Diego counties, hundreds of the mammals were being rescued from the beach, emaciated and dehydrated. Many were too far gone to save. Marine mammal rescue groups were overwhelmed for months and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach was no exception, housing as many as 167 sea lions at one point, far beyond their normal capacity. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is gathering data from all rescue groups involved, has yet to find an answer, though problems with the sea lion’s food source is currently the strongest theory. With the arrival of summer the crisis has slowly eased, but the animals are not considered out of danger.
“They are the canary in a coalmine that tells us there’s an issue we should be paying attention to,” says PMMC’s Director of Development Melissa Sciacca.
The name of PMMC’s longest current inhabitant. She was rescued at Capistrano Beach on March 21. At just 15 pounds, she weighed below what sea lions typically weigh at birth.
Sea lions are less migratory than other marine mammals like whales. Animals rescued on Orange County beaches are very likely from Orange County waters.
The crisis has fallen squarely on young California sea lions. There are actually lower numbers of other marine mammals, like elephant seals or harbor seals, stranded this year.
Though not yet entirely ruled out, radiation leakage from Japan’s damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is not considered a cause of the mass strandings. Experts believe radiation damage would more likely affect a much wider swath of sea life than what has been seen so far.
120 The number of special marine mammal vitamins and 600 various other supplements each animal receives during their rehab
500 The number of veterinary hours given to each animal
50-60 The number of pounds each sea lion should gain before it is re-released.
2-3 The number of months of the average stay for a rescued animal before it can be released in the ocean again
30-40 The percentage of the 340 sea lions rescued by PMMC that have died during the stranding crisis
65 The current number of animals in house at PMMC
2-4 The number of people required for a marine mammal beach rescue
1,400 The average number of volunteer hours during that animal’s rehabilitation period. Or, eight volunteers working approximately 120 12-hour days
600-800 The number of pounds of food (fresh fish) required at the center each day
$1 The cost per pound of food
A view from the top on the crisis
The sea lion stranding crisis is waning, but not over and the work goes on for centers that are rescuing and rehabbing young California sea lions. Sarah Wilkin, stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shared a few points with us on the crisis.
COAST: What's the current overall assessment of what has happened with the Southern California sea lion population?
Sarah Wilkin: We won't really know the population-level effects of this event for quite some time, maybe many years. It will take lots of study on the California sea lion rookeries to determine what effect this even may have had on the California sea lion population.
COAST: When did you know you had a crisis on your hands and how many sea lions have been affected so far?
Wilkin: Researchers on the Channel Islands at the California sea lion rookeries started to notice that pups were in poor condition – underweight compared to the long-term average – back in September 2012. A follow-up visit in January 2013 confirmed that there were many skinny animals and higher than usual mortality among pups. Also in January, the marine mammal rehabilitation facilities in Southern California began to notice a much higher than usual rate of intake for live stranded sea lion pups. The Unusual Mortality Event was officially declared in March 2013. To date in 2013, there have been over 1,500 California sea lions admitted to the rehabilitation facilities of the California marine mammal stranding network, and an unknown number of animals have died.
COAST: Is there any historical precedent for this?
Wilkin: There is a historical precedent for Unusual Mortality Events impacting California sea lions, but never with these same characteristics, like time of year, only pups, in Southern California.
COAST: What role do rescue facilities normally play in maintaining the health of coastal mammal wildlife and how did they manage in this crisis?
Wilkin: Marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facilities, including the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Orange County, play an important role in helping sick and injured marine mammals recover from their injuries and return to the wild populations. They help reduce animal suffering by treating injuries and illnesses. These centers also contribute a lot to the scientific knowledge about these species, which helps us understand better how to provide them with the best quality care, and how to identify and help prevent the threats they may face in the wild, especially threats that are anthropogenic, or come from people.