Since the beginning of the year, unusually large numbers of California sea lion pups have been found on the beaches of Southern and Central California. The animals are starving and stranded on the beaches. As scientists investigate this phenomenon, rescue workers along the coast are trying to save these pups.
Animal rescuers like Mark Bressler have been working non-stop since the beginning of the year.
“We’re coming in 10 animals a day average, to try to save the lives of hundreds of California sea lion pups," said Bressler.
“This is kind of like a mass casualty accident on a freeway kind of scenario. We’re trying to triage the ones that we can we know have the best survival and really more forward. And unfortunately euthanize the ones that we can’t treat effectively," said veterinarian Todd Schmitt.
Schmitt says the pups have up to a 70 percent survival rate once they arrive at SeaWorld San Diego. It is one of several animal rescue operations that are trying to nurse the pups back to health. Schmitt describes how a rescuer slides a tube into a pup’s stomach three times a day before it can eat solid food.
“She’s pouring medication down in the tube that’s to kind of prime and then she’ll place the dosing syringe on the tube and inject the formula, so the animal is getting medicated and a meal all at the same time," he said.
Rescuers along the coast have been seeing unusually large numbers of starving California sea lion pups, stranded on beaches because they are just too weak to swim. So far this year, some 2000 pups have been found, most of them in Southern California. More than 500 have been brought to the critical care unit at SeaWorld.
“They really are a bag of bones when they come to shore so they’re extremely dehydrated, malnourished, they haven’t eaten for days to weeks, some of these animals," said Schmitt.
Many of the pups look skeletal. Schmitt says they are seven to eight months old but are still almost near their birth weight. They should be three times heavier. The pups have eaten things they shouldn’t because they are so hungry.
“We’ve seen rocks, sand, we’ve seen crabs, we’ve seen sting rays that these animals are trying to ingest. We had an animal for example with a sting ray tail hanging out of its mouth because it was so desperate to eat," he said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the total number of pups found on the beaches in January and February alone is 20 times the average stranding rate.
Scientists say unusual wind patterns caused a warming of the ocean water on the west coast, including the area around Southern California's Channel Islands, where many sea lions are born. The warm water is pushing the sardines, anchovies and other fish the animals prey on away from shore, forcing the mothers to dive deeper or travel farther to find food. NOAA's Justin Greenman says that means leaving their pups for longer periods of time.
“Everyday that she’s gone it’s thinking, well maybe I can do this on my own, i’m so hungry I have to go do something. That’s what we’re seeing those animals coming to shore," said Greenman.
Scientists are monitoring both ocean conditions on North America's west coast and El Niño to see how they affect the entire eco-system. If El Niño becomes stronger and lasts until the end of 2015, it is likely to create conditions that will cause West Coast waters to stay warm for at least another year. And that could spell trouble for next year's pups.
So far, SeaWorld San Diego alone has returned more than 75 of them back into the ocean, in areas where there is abundant food.