Environment & Science

More malnourished sea lion pups wash ashore this year

Sea lions in rehab
Sea lions in rehab
Pacific Marine Mammal Center

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Unusually high numbers of malnourished California sea lions have stranded alive so far this year. The number of stranded animals, at this point, outpaces even that from 2013, a year that the National Marine Fisheries Service declared an "unusual mortality event" for West Coast sea lions.

That year saw more than 1,600 sea lions wash ashore and become stranded. Officials with the Fisheries Service said they are preparing for a similarly busy year in 2015.

“This early on, having this many animals is a concern, so we’re really trying to get our ducks in a row and prepare for a heavy season,” said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Viezbicke said that it’s too early in the season to determine what may be causing the strandings. Biologists are monitoring warmer ocean temperatures and their potential impacts on high quality food sources. Viezbicke said El Niño events typically correspond with higher numbers of strandings. An El Niño watch has been in effect since March.

Most strandings typically occur from late April through June. In addition to the advanced stranding schedule, Viezbicke said the numbers include more older animals than are usually found. 

Viezbicke said that facilities have been prepared for a heavier stranding season. Researchers that weigh pups in breeding colonies on the Channel Islands have given indication that more strandings than normal may occur. 

“The pups this year have been smaller and lower in weight than ideal, so that’s kind of why we’re preparing for a heavy year,” Viezbicke said. “We’re kind of putting all these things together and basically preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.”

Viezbicke urged concerned beachgoers who come across a sea lion they suspect may be stranded not to approach the animal but to contact the stranding network.

“When an animal is sick and on the beach, if we’re around it and we’re getting too close, that can cause a lot of undue stress,” Viezbicke said. “If you see animals on the beach, give us a call and let us know.”