Starving California Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Ashore

Lack of food and oceanographic changes to blame

Thousands of sick sea lion pups are washing up on the California shoreline, starving and emaciated. Many are dehydrated and diseased, and animal rescue and rehabilitation centers are struggling to keep up and take care of the sick sea lion pups.

So far this year, more than 3,300 California sea lions have been rescued by rehabilitation facilities across California. Southern California has been hit


the hardest, but it’s occurring all along the coast, according to Claire Simeone, a conservation medicine veterinarian with the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif.

The reason for so many dying sea lion pups is due to a lack of food, as the population of sardines and anchovies, known as forage fish, dwindles due to overfishing. This is the primary food source for breeding sea lions and sea lion pups. Organizations such as Oceana and the Marine Mammal Center are doing what they can to help the sea lions survive.

Starving California Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Ashore

Crashing sardine population

The problem began in 2007 when the sardine population began crashing, but no one noticed the impact on California sea lions until 2012. In 2013, about 70% of the sea lion pups born that year died, said Ben Enticknap, senior scientist with Oceana.

“There simply isn’t enough food for the nursing mothers to be able to feed and get back to shore to nurse their pup, so the pups are then abandoning the islands in search for food but they’re too weak and emaciated and dehydrated and they end up dying or washing up stranded on the southern California beaches. Their primary prey during breeding and pupping are sardines and anchovies,” he said.

Both of those forage fish populations are at very low numbers right now, in part due to oceanographic changes and in part due to overfishing, especially with sardines, he said.

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that at least 70% of the pups were expected to die this year as well, and that the number could increase.

Starving California Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Ashore

What needs to happen

To solve the problem, sardine fishing needs to stop. To keep the problem from happening, it should have stopped years ago before this system wide impact began, he said.

California brown pelicans are impacted as well. “They’re abandoning their nests because they can’t find enough food. Scientists call it a nesting failure. They nested to reproduce, so they abandoned their nests and the eggs failed, they died and they were not able to reproduce because of a lack of prey,” he said. Since brown pelicans were only recently removed from the endangered species list, this is a potential crisis if it escalates," Enticknap said.

“They may be the tip of the iceberg because that’s what we can observe. We may not fully know the effects for a while,” he said.

Simeone agreed, saying, “When we see sea lions struggling, it indicates that something larger is happening. Our ocean is clearly being impacted by a variety of stressors, from warmer water temperatures to overfishing to pollution.”

Starving California Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Ashore

How to help

If you spot a starving sea lion pup, you can call for help. NOAA provides information on its website on what to do if you encounter a sick sea lion. The Marine Mammal Center also provides guidelines and a phone number to call.

The NOAA guidelines include:

  • Do not touch the sea lion.
  • Don’t allow pets to approach the sea lion.
  • Observe the animal from a safe distance (safe for you and the animal).
  • Sick or dead marine mammals should be reported to your local agency.

The best way to support the Marine Mammal Center, Simeone said, is by going to the center’s website and make a donation.

“During the height of the sea lion crisis this year, volunteers at the center went through 1,000 pounds of fish per day. The center welcomes any support to help us rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammals as we expect continued financial strain due to the sea lion crisis,” Simeone said.

You can also help sea lion pups by visiting the center’s Adopt A Seal page.

“Each Adopt-a-Seal® represents thousands of patients that need The Marine Mammal Center's help. Your tax-deductible gift will help us buy fish and medicine for current and future patients. Donations also fund research into marine mammal diseases as well as help us educate the public about the importance of marine mammals and ocean health,” she said.

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