Rising Number of Starving Young Sea Lions Alarms Marine Vets

Between whales washing ashore and mussels roasting to death in Bodega Bay, it's clear the ocean is trying to tell us something.

Young California sea lions are found starving and orphaned at higher rates than usual. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Center)

Within just two months, the number of orphaned California sea lions rescued by Marine Mammal Center has surged from 46 to more than 375.

The time of year isn’t unusual to find starving sea lion pups who leave the proverbial nest and may need help surviving on their own. But rescuing more than a dozen each day for the past couple pasts has the nonprofit veterinary research hospital looking at bigger issues with the ocean. 

“More alarming than the sheer number of sea lions in our care is the breakneck speed at which that patient count escalated,” the Marine Mammal Center wrote this week. “Experts say even weak patterns have potential to tip the ocean off-kilter, especially when compounded by the effects of warming waters worldwide, which has made the ocean environment increasingly unpredictable.”

The sea lions are not only grappling with unusual water conditions, but with a reduction in food partly to do with climate change. Between an unusually strong El Niño and “the blob” of warm Pacific Ocean water in 2015, the Sausalito nonprofit rescued a record of at least 1,700 seals and sea lions that year. 

Problems for sea lions don’t stop at an influx of malnourished youth. Dozens of adult or near-adult California sea lions have been stranded with “neurological abnormalities and seizures,” the nonprofit found. Such symptoms are signs of domoic acid poisoning, a condition caused by algal blooms that attacks the brain and is fatal if untreated. 

The sea lion attacks on four swimmers in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park during December 2017 was linked to domoic acid toxicity. Marine experts are also warning that humans who eat seafood containing domoic acid may face a life-threatening amnesic shellfish poisoning, plus an upset stomach.

Stranded sea lion pups have shown up at Ocean Beach as recently as last week, and on Highway 101 in April. But they’re far from the only marine creatures facing life-or-death conditions. Six rare North Atlantic right whales died in the past month, bringing the species even closer to extinction while the recent heatwave had mussels in Bodega Bay roasting to death in their shells.

“As ocean conditions continue to deteriorate, we shouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in stranded animals year after year,” said Dr. Cara Field, staff veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center. “Unfortunately, this is our new normal, and we have to respond—not just by rescuing suffering animals but by investigating why these animals are stranding and addressing human-caused threats like climate change that are impacting marine ecosystems on a global scale.”

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