Starving sea lion pups washing up on Southern California beaches (Chart)

Weak sea lion pups

Mary Plummer

These malnourished and dehydrated pups are recovering in the "intensive care unit" of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. The center rescued 12 sea lion pups on Saturday, March 9, 2013, alone -- breaking its prior one-day record.

Scientists say nearly half of all the sea lion pups born in island rookeries off Southern California this season have died and hundreds of starving pups are washing up on beaches between San Diego and Santa Barbara.

Wildlife biologists don't know whether the problem is food availability, disease or a combination of both.

RELATED: Photos: Mystery ailment afflicts sea lion pups in Orange County

It got so bad in the past two weeks that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an "unusual mortality event," which will allow more scientists to search for the cause.

Southern California rescue centers have become so overwhelmed they have had to start sending starving pups to Northern California. And biologists say it is so bad on the beaches that rescuers have had to leave the worst of the pups behind while saving the strongest ones.

RELATED: FAQs on the California Sea Lion UME in California

Above is an image of a chart showing live California sea lion historical stranding rates for 2008-2012 (admits to rehabilitation facilities from Jan 1-March 31). Data is for 2013 is as of March 24, 2013. (Courtesy NOAA)

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