Stranded sea lions and seals are washing up all along the California coast in desperate states of malnutrition, injury from entanglement, or sickness. It’s being called an Unusual Mortality Event and this summer there's concern about what it means for our own health.
These troubled marine mammals represent much more than their individual hardship, they are sending a message about the health of our ocean.
Scientists compare them to the canaries in coal mines. Irregularities in their behavior tell ecologists about how the ocean is acting, like if the water is warming or if the fish is toxic. Ecologists say in the past two years, a warm section of water created toxic algae, which got eaten by fish and passed on to sea lions.
So, when a marine animal shows up sick from domoic acid, it’s a heads up to check our own farmed fish for toxicity before it hits our dinner plate.
Domoic acid poisoning in humans is called Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning. It’s unlikely to kill humans like it does seals, but it’s not pretty for us either, often leading to diarrhea, vomiting, and in severe cases, seizures.
(Scroll down to see how you can help)
How these California seals are getting rescued and returned
There is a group of volunteers who work with nonprofits along the West Coast called the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Working in cooperation with scientific investigators, the seals and sea lions are not only rescued, but examined, treated and most of the time, released back into the wild.
We visited some of the rescued seals and sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and spoke to Krista Higuchi, the center’s Public Information Officer. She says 90 percent of the marine mammals this summer are coming in severely malnourished.
Of the animals they treat, 75 percent are able to get released back into the wild. The veterinary care, treatments, and after care is extensive, costing at least $3,000 per sea lion or seal and over $100,000 yearly just to feed the rescues.
The volunteers and vets at the nonprofit work diligently not to befriend the animals and avoid eye contact so that they are able to return to the ocean and don’t approach people.
Hallie was one of the sea lions being treated that was almost ready for release when we visited, and so we returned to watch her release back into the ocean. The crowd laughed and cheered as she and another sea lion, Tuoy, made their way back into the crashing waves at Aliso Beach.
Many of these rescues don’t end their story at the release. The nonprofit rescue centers tag them and scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continue to watch their travels and progress electronically.
“What’s happening to the animals, is what’s happening to the ocean,” explained Higuchi. “So, if we don’t do something to change what’s happening to these animals, our whole ocean could… we’re essentially killing our ocean.”
Why are their problems our problems?
While the population of sea lions has grown exponentially over the years on the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, their hardships are not decreasing.
Michael Milstein with NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region said the biggest concern for sea lion stranding was in 2015, when suddenly the coast was littered with pups. It raised an alarm, and they determined that an unusual atmospheric event caused a warm water mass off the coast, otherwise described as the “warm blob.”
That blob separated the sea lion pups from their moms since the food had moved deeper into cold waters, so the moms had to leave their babies at the beach while they foraged for food.
A research ecologist with the Southwest Fishery Science Center, Elliott Hazen, says that blob ended up creating a cycle of devastating events. “The warm blob not only separated the sea lion pups but we believe it was the cause of the toxic algal bloom that followed, resulting in many sick sea lions.”
Hazen says seals and sea lions with domoic acid poisoning indicates potential problems with our own seafood supply, and adds that that’s what lead to the temporary shut down of the dungeness crabberies and some clam harvesting.
He believes the aggressive crabbing they're witnessing this year is a result of trying to compensate for lost revenue, which he says has lead to yet another problem. This year NOAA fisheries reports the largest number of whale entanglements ever off the west coast.
There’s a new warning this year that the toxicity levels off the coast may still be high. Rescuers and vets with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center says while they've seen less pups stranded, of the 66 adult female sea lions rescued, 75 percent did not survive getting sick from domoic acid. The Marine Mammal Center which covers 600 miles in the center of the California Coastline, also confirms a spike this past month of rescues with domoic acid poisoning.
Scientists explain the reason the numbers of pup strandings dropped this year is because that "warm blob" of water is gone, but say concerns about their health and livelihood are not.
NOAA Fisheries' Milstein warns what's ailing the marine mammals will impact all of us, and that’s why it’s important we not only help them overcome this Unusual Mortality Event, but continue to watch their progress.
Yes, you can do something about this. Here's how:
1. Get involved
You can donate or volunteer with the rescue centers that make up the West Coast Stranding Network. CLICK HERE for a list. The center we visited, and where Hallie was treated, is the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. They are looking for volunteers and donations and have a Fish Drive to feed the mammals in their care.
The Marine Mammal Center, which contributed to our story from Sausalito, is also always looking for volunteers and donations. These are nonprofits, so they exist only with the help of donations. They also have many kid friendly events to help educate the public and gift stores with sales that support the centers.
2. Keep your distance
Yes, we know you might have that selfie desire when you see a marine mammal sunning itself on the beach, but scientists want you to know it’s a really bad idea to get close for that picture. They are legally protected, and you are supposed to stay at least 50 yards away from them.
The rule is in place for their safety and yours. First, they’re wild animals so no matter how cute they may look, they do actually bite and because of their strength can be extremely dangerous. Secondly, if those that are friendly go up to humans, they put themselves at risk not only for harassment but for malnutrition because by depending on humans for food, they lose the ability to compete for fish in the wild.
Ecologists also warn not to help that crying stranded baby sea lion. If you see a stranded pup, it is very likely that its mother left it to go find food and may be close by. Don’t approach it or touch it, because if its mother sees you make contact, she might abandon it. If you see a stranded sea lion, even if it's a baby and you could physically pick it up, call your local stranding network and don't touch it.
3. Clean up
The trash you leave behind, not just on the beach but in your own front yard, drains out to the ocean and contributes to the toxic algae problem in addition to entanglements. These marine mammals are also getting found with bellies full of our discarded items like cans and other trash that they may think is edible.
NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and the Marine Mammal Center have provided background information, recent statistics, pictures and video to help us tell this important story.
For more information about what's happening to our ocean with current entanglements, toxicity, and our marine mammals, we encourage you to visit NOAA Fisheries West Coast.