Dehydrated and starving sea lions pups are washing up along the Orange County coast, according to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
The center has taken in 27 pups, most between 6 and 7 months old, for rehydration and nourishment since mid-December. Eleven of the pups survived, and nine are in critical condition.
According to Kirsten Sedlick, an animal care supervisor and educational coordinator for the center, many of the young sea lions they are treating are in stage three of starvation.
“They are coming in hypoglycemic and hypothermic,” Sedlick said. “They’ve gotten to the point where their bodies are eating the muscles of their bodies.”
Sedlick says that the people at the center think sea lions are starving because of the effects of the El Niño climate pattern, which showed up in the Pacific Ocean in April of last year. The Humboldt ocean current has introduced warm water into the sea lions’ habitat, causing fish to move to colder waters.
“And so the sea lions have to compete more in order to get the fish in the water,” Sedlick said. “And that’s what’s causing the sea lion pups to starve, because they aren’t as strong as the adult sea lions.”
According to Richard Evans, the medical director for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, workers are staging the sea lion pups’ recovery.
“We really have to take this by a case-by-case basis,” Evans said. “Some of them are nearly skin and bones. Some of them have a lot more fat and muscle, so right now we are feeding them through a cage in different stages.”
Evans and his team are caring for the sea lion pups by hydrating them in a warm environment. They feed them a liquid formula of vitamins, proteins and fat through a tube into their stomach.
Once the sea lions are hydrated, they are taken to a cage where they are fed ground-up fish to eat. The center’s workers gradually feed them whole fish and then move them to a pool with a group of sea lions to eat.
“We put them in a pool with a group of sea lions, where they learn to compete for the food,” Evans said. “They have to be kept at a certain amount of weight. Once they are about 60 to 80 pounds, we release them.”
Evans said that although the El Niño current may slow the growth of the sea lion population, their numbers will still rise.
“The population is still going upward, so it’ll probably rebound without any problem,” Evans said. “Their numbers are growing at about 5% a year, so an occurrence such as this will probably lower it down to 1%, but it will still grow, because all marine mammals are protected.”