Sick Sea Lion Pups Cause Concern among Marine Biologists

Shannon Turgeon, News Editor

Photo courtesy of Google

An overwhelming number of sea lion pups have recently been turning up close to death on Southern California’s coastline. These sick marine mammals are the cause of an investigation by various marine biologists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since early 2013, around 1,400 California sea lions have been brought to rehabilitation centers throughout the state. Sarah Wilkin, who is the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for NOAA, told Fox News that the number of beached pups is five times the normal rate that is usually seen at this time of year.

So far, the California sea lion pup is the only marine mammal that has been affected by this problem.

“Nobody was quite prepared for the scope of this. The major common factor for all these stranded pups is that they’re coming in emaciated, dehydrated, basically starving. They have been unable to find enough food to sustain themselves.”

Marine biologists have been struggling to find answers to this phenomenon, according to Fox News. It is still unclear why the pups haven’t been able to get enough fish, which they need for both hydration and nutrition. However, one thing is clear: this epidemic is only affecting the young. Most of the ill sea lions were born last summer.

Wilkin stated that “The pups can’t dive as deep. They can’t travel as far so they might be more impacted in even just a slight change in the distribution of prey.”

Fox News reported that NOAA has declared this sea lion situation as an “unusual mortality event.” This declaration will hopefully allow NOAA to gain additional money for rehabilitation and research.

David Bard, who works with the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, stated that “The numbers speak for themselves. As far as the underlying causes, anything that I can tell you would be a guess. What we started seeing since January is animals coming in at roughly half the weight that they should be. You can see their shoulder blades, you can see their spines.”

Normally, Bard’s care center sees between 50 and 80 animals in the first part of the year. In 2013, however, it has helped over 400. SeaWorld San Diego has experienced an increase of ill animals as well, according to Fox News.  Spokesperson Dave Koontz stated that its rehab facility has treated more than 300 animals in 2013 (although that number also includes elephant and harbor seals.) Koontz said that they have helped more animals in the first four months of 2013 than in 2011 and 2012 combined.

According to Wilkin, NOAA is collaborating with fishery scientists and oceanographers to find the cause of this problem. Some of the theories they are looking into are food shortages, exposure to bio-toxins, disease, and human pollutants. They are also exploring whether or not radiation contamination from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 is a factor.

Regardless of what is causing this issue, Wilkin told Fox News that this could be a sign of a bigger problem in the waters off of the California coast. “We consider marine mammals as a sentinels. By investigating causes that are impacting them, we do a lot of times get information that in turn can impact us. We eat a lot of the same fish species. We are using the oceans for similar ways so what we learn from them does play into our health. ”