Starving sea lion pups fill California rescue centres on US west coast

 

Hundreds of starving sea lion pups are washing up on beaches in Southern California, overwhelming rescue centres and leaving scientists scrambling to figure out why.

At island rookeries off the coast, 45 per cent of the pups born in June have died, said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service based in Seattle. Normally, less than one-third of the pups would die.

It's gotten so bad in the past two weeks that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an "unusual mortality event." That will allow more scientists to join the search for the cause, Melin said.

Pups are normally weaned from their mothers in April.

Even the pups that are making it are markedly underweight, Melin said.

The most recent pups weighed at the breeding area on San Miguel Island were about 17kg, Melin said. They should weigh up to 27kg by now, she said.

Melin said she doesn't know how the pups are making it to the mainland, but they must be using currents and swimming.

"That's a long way, and they are very small," she said. "They don't have a lot of fat, and the water is pretty cold. They are often dehydrated, which is typical with emaciation. It puts them in pretty bad condition."

Those landing on the mainland may have been looking for food if their mother stayed out foraging too long, Melin said.

Live sea lion strandings are nearly three times higher than the historical average, said Jim Milbury of the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of NOAA.

Between 1 January and 24 March, 948 pups were rescued, Milbury said. The bulk of those were in Los Angeles County, which had 395, followed by San Diego, Orange, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, he said. Last year, only about 100 pups needed saving during the same period.

At the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center in Laguna Beach, there were 139 animals being cared for yesterday. Of those, 131 were sea lion pups, said spokeswoman Melissa Sciacca. She said the center has treated more than 220 sea lion pups so far this year, while the center treated 118 in all of 2012.

Southern California rescue facilities have become so crowded they have had to start sending pups to Northern California, said Jeff Boehm, executive director at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, which was caring for 30 starving pups.

Scientists were performing tests to determine if the problem is food availability, disease or both.

Biologists knew last spring that this year's supply of anchovies and sardines could be limited, Boehm said.

"These two species of fish are an extremely important part of California sea lions' diets, and females simply may not have been able to nurse their young sufficiently, resulting in abandonment, premature weaning and subsequent strandings," he said.

Besides anchovies and sardines, sea lions also eat squid and other ocean creatures. Routine testing of seafood is being done by state and federal agencies and consumer safety experts are working with NOAA to find the problem.

"No link has been established at this time between these sea lion strandings and any potential seafood safety issues," NOAA said in a statement.

There has been no sign of adult female mortality, Melin said. But the pups' situation on the beaches is so bad, rescuers have had to leave the worst of them in an effort to save the strongest ones, she said.

Scientists expect the death toll to rise in April when weaning is supposed to take place. They also expect it to move further north, Melin said.

Anyone who sees a stranded sea lion, dead or alive, is asked to call the nearest marine mammal center. Authorities say people should not touch the animal or let a pet near it, because sea lions can bite.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: ASP.NET Developer / Programmer - SQL, MVC, C#

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This distributor and wholesaler...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd Line IT Support Technician

£26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This highly successful business...

Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - Bedfordshire - £30,000 + Excellent package

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Bonus, Pension, 25days hol, PHC +: Ashdown Group: ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn