Sick sea lions wait on shore while O.C. marine centers over capacity

A jogger passes a stranded adult sea lion in Laguna Beach on March 30. Record numbers of starving baby sea lions continue to wash ashore in California.

A jogger passes a stranded adult sea lion in Laguna Beach on March 30. Record numbers of starving baby sea lions continue to wash ashore in California.

(Robyn Beck/ AFP/Getty Images)

A tiny chocolate-brown California sea lion pup languished on the shore near the Newport Pier on a recent morning as people crowded around it.

Some who had never seen a wild sea lion up close snapped photos. Others grew anxious that officials hadn’t shown up to care for the pup.

The scenario has become common in recent months for local officials who have been tasked with caring for 2,460 sea lions that have washed ashore this year in California.


Since January, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, which picks up distressed sea lions from the majority of Orange County beaches, has rescued 27 pups in Newport Beach, the Daily Pilot reported.

With marine mammal shelters up and down the coast overwhelmed by the number of sick sea lions needing care, response times to beaches are getting longer, if there’s a response at all, said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Most of our facilities are over capacity,” Viezbicke said. “That’s the real challenge right now. We don’t have the capability to pick up every animal.”

Some beachgoers, frustrated with a perceived lack of response from rescue centers, have tried to rescue the pups themselves, which is dangerous.

“The general public mentality is, ‘If someone is not going to do something, I’m going to take the situation into my own hands,’” Viezbicke said. “It’s a much bigger undertaking than most people realize it is.”

Officials ask that the public stay away from sea lions because interaction with humans can agitate the animals and cause them to be aggressive. Sometimes they attack.

Interacting with sea lions also can result in a hefty fine. Penalties for harassing them can range from $100 to $13,000, according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Under the federal law, “harassment” is defined as the “act of pursuit, torment or annoyance which has the potential to injure the animal or cause a disruption of its natural behavior.”

Though most people who see the mammals on the beach mean them no harm, getting close and snapping photos can cause the animals severe stress, Viezbicke said.

In the past several months, people have reported being bitten on the face, hands and arms after they picked up ailing sea lions in an attempt to rescue them.

Laguna Beach resident Kurt Mahoney often tries to educate people when he sees them approach sea lions to pet them or take a photo.

“A lot of people don’t know these pups are in a bad way,” Mahoney said. “They see a sea lion and think, ‘How cute,’ without realizing that they bite and have extremely sharp teeth. They might look all cuddly, but they don’t want you to be near them.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service reported that 350 sea lion pups became stranded on California beaches in January, 850 in February and 1,050 in March. So far in April, 210 have been found.

During the same months last year, 621 pups washed ashore, data show.

Warmer ocean waters and dwindling food sources have led many sea lions to become severely malnourished and dehydrated, experts say. Some rescued animals have scrapes on their bodies or flippers, according to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

The center currently is caring for 128 sea lion pups, including eight arrivals Friday, Executive Director Keith Matassa said.

Three of the center’s sea lions had tags when rescuers found them, indicating they came from the Channel Islands and likely traveled farther than normal for food. Twice a year, researchers visit the Channel Islands and tag certain pups to track their growth, Matassa said.

Fry is a staff writer for Times Community News. Times Community News staff writer Bryce Alderton also contributed to this report.

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN and @AldertonBryce.