Record Number of Sea Lion Pups Stranded in California

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Stranded Sea Lions

Wildlife services in California are being pushed to their limits this year. Since January 2015, every month has set a record in sea lion “strandings,” mostly sea lion pups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There has been an unusually high number of sea lions stranded since January,” said Justin Greenman, assistant stranding coordinator for NOAA on the West Coast. “Stranding does happen, but just to give you perspective, 1,800 [sea lion] pups have been responded to this year alone. We responded to 1,600 strandings total during the entire year in 2013,” he said.

Stranding is the official term to describe marine life that “swim or float into shore and become beached or stuck,” according to NOAA.

Strandings are taking a toll on the resources available in coastal counties from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Local care facilities have taken in more stranded sea lions this year than 2004-12 combined, and it is only mid-March. Greenman said he expects the problem to continue beyond April, when weaning normally occurs, when the pups are 10 or 11 months old.

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Dave Koontz, director of communications for SeaWorld San Diego, said SeaWorld has rescued nearly 500 sea lions this year. “This is a new record for Sea World,” Koontz said. “In 1983 we rescued 474.”

Some of the sea lions responded to have had to be euthanized. “They [sea lion pups] have to be able to eat and fish on their own before they can be released back into the wild, and a lot of these pups haven’t even been weaned,” Greenman said.

Greenman said California has had warmer weather than usual this year, and, while NOAA is still conducting studies on the Channel Islands to get a more proven explanation, warmer water drives the food source farther out or deeper into the ocean, where the colder water is. When food is farther away, the mothers are away from the pup too long in search of food, and return with little food or too few nutrients for a growing sea lion.

“We have been seeing emaciated or dehydrated sea lions show up on beaches,” Greenman said. However, he said, the species has made a comeback since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

California’s sea lion population has grown to 300,000 from an estimated population of 10,000 in the 1950s, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.

People who observe stranded sea lions are advised not to touch them or attempt to rescue them, because it can be dangerous and it is illegal. Instead, call any of the rescue agencies listed on NOAA West Coast Region’s website.

If the animal has died, the local dead animal pickup service should be alerted.