As more needy sea lions flood in, Marine Mammal Center gets help

As more needy sea lions flood in, Marine Mammal Center gets help
Two sea lion pups jostle around in one of the rehab units at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center on Wednesday. The center is seeing an influx of malnourished and dehydrated sea lions that have been rescued from Huntington Beach to San Clemente. (Don Leach / Coastline Pilot)

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach is experiencing a bad case of deja vu, and it's probably not the only rescue facility feeling that way.

The center, which rehabilitates ocean-dwelling animals and returns them to their habitat, has seen an influx of malnourished and dehydrated sea lions from Orange County beaches. The same thing happened in 2013, but the numbers are even greater now.


As of Wednesday, the center had rescued 182 sea lions compared with 60 during the same period in 2013.

Statewide, nearly 1,000 sea lions have washed ashore this year, the Los Angeles Times reported last week. In all of 2013, 1,400 sea lions were reported stranded along the state's coast, according to Keith Matassa, the Laguna center's executive director.


"They are underweight, but the difference is we're seeing more parasite loads and different age classes," he said, adding that more 2- and 3-year-olds are entering the center.

The very young animals are averaging 5 pounds below their birth weight — which is about 20 pounds — upon entering, Matassa said.

Center staff members are working to boost the pups' weight. The target goal is about 60 pounds, Matassa said.

Once pups reach the center, staff members give them clear fluids as they work up to solid food.


"It's like if you were rescued out of a boat," Matassa said. "We're not going to give you a buffet."

Not all animals that come to the center survive. Of the 351 sea lions rescued by the Laguna center in 2013, around 75% lived, Matassa said. This year has seen a similar survival rate, he added.

San Diego's National Marine Mammal Foundation has sent 20 experts in animal care and medicine to the Laguna center to handle the added patient load, foundation Executive Director Cynthia Smith said. They will work one day or stay for five weeks, depending on the need, she said.

"We're hoping to raise added funds to get staff at the center for longer periods of time," Smith said.

As of Friday, the center had 97 animals in its care compared with 12 at the same time last year and 42 in 2013, Matassa said.

Last year the center added an additional intensive-care unit, where animals are placed before progressing to one of the facility's seven outdoor pools. Progress is determined by "how they are doing and how many times they eat," Matassa said.

He said the facility on Laguna Canyon Road can handle up to 125 animals, which may prove problematic if animals continue inundating county beaches.

Volunteers are assisting staff at the Laguna center with the increased patient load by washing laundry and dishes and measuring out fish, Matassa said.


Matassa said he has consulted with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service division to understand ocean currents and other factors that could cause an increase in distressed animals.

According to NOAA Fisheries spokesman Jim Milbury, the influx could be a result of warmer water temperatures around the sea lions' hangout at the Channel Islands.

The warmer water could have affected the sea lions' ability to find prey. Female sea lions might be expending more time and energy to obtain food, so pups are abandoned.

Questions have been raised about whether radiation released from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 could be contributing to sea lions' declining health.

Ken Buesseler, senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., said it's unlikely.

Buesseler has studied the effects of radiation on marine life since Fukushima. Volunteers and fellow researchers collected samples at 50 locations from La Jolla to Alaska as part of a monitoring project called Our Radioactive Ocean.

The highest concentration levels were found about 100 miles off the coast of Eureka.

"This Fukushima-derived cesium is far below where one might expect any measurable risk to human health or marine life," according to the Our Radioactive Ocean website, citing international health agencies. "And it is more than 1,000 times lower than acceptable limits in drinking water" set by the Environmental Protection Agency.