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Seals in crisis along California's Central Coast

David Sneed
San Luis Obispo Tribune
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It’s been a busy March at the Marine Mammal Center’s Morro Bay triage facility.

During the month, the facility has cared for 38 malnourished seals — mostly sea lions that were on their way to the group’s main veterinary hospital in Sausalito from Southern California. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared “an unusual morbidity event is occurring for California sea lions in Southern California.”

Changes in oceanographic conditions there have caused more than 900 starving seals to beach themselves so far this year. By comparison, some 100 sea lions were rescued from the region during the same three-month period last year.

“That’s about a tenfold increase over historic levels,” said Sarah Wilkin, the state marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries in Long Beach.

Most of the animals are sea lion pups plus a few elephant seals, northern fur seals and a harbor seal. A few starving seals have also been rescued from San Luis Obispo County beaches.

Rescue facilities in Southern California have been so overwhelmed by the influx of malnourished seals that they have enlisted the help of the Marine Mammal Center, which serves the coast from San Luis Obispo County northward.

The seals typically spend a day at the Morro Bay center before being ferried to Sausalito, where their rehabilitation is completed and the animals are released back into the ocean. Weaker animals are tube fed, while the stronger ones are fed herring, said Lisa Harper Henderson, site manager.

“It’s been pretty crazy the past three weeks, and it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down,” she said.

Biologists are unsure of the exact cause of the problem. One possible explanation is that environmental changes in the ocean have caused sardines and anchovies to move out of the area.

“These two species of fish are an extremely important part of California sea lions’ diets, and females simply may not have been able to nurse their young sufficiently, resulting in abandonment, premature weaning and subsequent strandings,” said Jeff Boehm, Marine Mammal Center executive director.

Sea lions are hit particularly hard because they are all born in rookeries in the Channel Islands, right where the food shortage is most critical. Newly weaned pups are inefficient foragers, and breeding females have high caloric needs.

“We are also looking at disease and harmful algal blooms as a cause,” Wilkin said.

A similar starvation event occurred in 2009. This year, the center expects to feed 100,000 pounds of herring at $1 per pound to recovering seals.

Leave seals be

The Marine Mammal Center advises San Luis Obispo County residents and visitors who find distressed seals on area beaches to leave them alone and call its local 24-hour hotline, 771-8300. Center volunteers will monitor the animal and rescue it if necessary. For more information on the center and how to donate or volunteer, visit

How donations help hungry seals

The Marine Mammal Center has begun a campaign to raise $60,000 to help fund the feeding of rescued animals. Here’s a look at how the donations are used:

$1 = 1 pound of fish $10 = one fish smoothie for one seal pup $25 = medical care for one pup $50 = a day of fish smoothies for one pup $75 = meals and medication for a seal pup for one day

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