A brutal year for California sea lions continues — especially for pups, which keep coming ashore in emaciated conditions. The National Marine Fisheries Service says that 1,600 sea lions washed up on California beaches from Jan. 1 to March 8, as many as in all of 2013, a year that was declared an “unusual mortality event” for the species. At least 720 remain in mammal care centers up and down the coast, says the U-T in San Diego. Some have been rehabbed and released. Others have been euthanized. Sea World in San Diego recently shut down its sea lion show so that staffers could tend to the five to 10 ill sea lions the park collects every day, per the paper. Sea World says it has brought in 487 sea lions already this year, its most ever.
The cause appears to be the warmer Pacific waters near our shore pushing the sea lions' food sources deeper or farther away. The animals coming ashore tend to be pups that cannot hunt in such extreme conditions or are not being taken care of by their mothers. From AP:
It's a scenario playing out daily in California this year as rescue centers struggle to keep up with hundreds of sick and starving sea lion pups washing up along the coast. More than 1,650 pups have been rescued since January from beaches, but also from inside public restrooms, behind buildings and along railroad tracks.
It's not unusual to have some sea lions wash up each spring as the pups leave their mothers, but so far, the number of stranded babies is more than five times greater than in 2013, the worst season in recent memory.
"These animals are coming in really desperate. They're at the end of life. They're in a crisis ... and not all animals are going to make it," said Keith A. Matassa, executive director at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which has taken in 285 pups this winter compared with 28 during the same period last year….
Scientists aren't sure what's causing the crisis, but suspect that warmer waters from this winter's mild El Nino weather pattern are impacting the sea lion birthing grounds along the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast.
The warm water is likely pushing prime sea lion foods — market squid, sardines and anchovies — further north, forcing the mothers to abandon their pups for up to eight days at a time in search of sustenance.
The pups, scientists believe, are weaning themselves early out of desperation and setting out on their own despite being underweight and ill-prepared to hunt.
Photo: A young sea lion rescued at Balboa Pier in February by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.