September 29, 2016

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By: Shilpi Chhotray, Mission Blue Communications Strategist 

Pat Wilson_© The Marine Mammal Center

Pat Wilson © The Marine Mammal Center

We’ve all seen the photos—record numbers of starving young sea lions, little more than skin and bones, that have washed ashore along the Northern California coast. These figures and images, reported by The Marine Mammal Center, weigh heavily on our marine mammal-loving hearts. Sea lions are known for their curiosity and playful banter with human passersby– but what’s happening to their population?

Sea Lions In Trouble

Earlier this year, The Marine Mammal Center was rescuing dozens of sea lion pups at a time for immediate medical attention at their hospital in Sausalito, California. The animals were so dehydrated and emaciated that Center staff described them as ‘fur-covered skeletons’. Before the one year mark, a healthy sea lion pup should weigh between 50-70 lbs. These pups weighed in at 20-30 lbs, less than half the ideal weight at that age. Mothers were also being found thin and debilitated.

Unfortunately, this is nothing out of the ordinary for The Marine Mammal Center. This is the fourth year in a row that California has seen a sea lion pup crisis. Last year tallied more than 4,200 sea lion pup strandings, and this year, more than 2,000 pups stranded along the California coast. While the historical data shows an average peak in strandings between April and June, pups began washing ashore as early as January this year and in much greater numbers—a shift NOAA Fisheries refers to as an “unusual mortality event”.

Environmental Causes?

To get to the root cause, I spoke with Dr. Cara Field, The Marine Mammal Center’s staff veterinarian, earlier this year. In addition to a dire food shortage for nursing sea lion mothers, Dr. Field painted an underlying picture of  weather anomalies affecting overall ocean health. Warmer waters brought on by an especially strong El Niño caused changes in wind, current and upwelling patterns. Simultaneously, an anomalous warm patch off the West Coast known as “the blob” inhibited upwelling of nutrient-rich waters crucial for supporting marine life. The combined effect proved detrimental to a number of fishery populations like sardines and anchovies that support sea lions in their migration offshore.

Sea Lions In Human Hands

Dr. Field explained how her team maintains an absolute minimum of human interaction, restricting activities to medical evaluation or tube feedings.


Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center

“Our goal is to keep wild animals wild and we take extra measures to make sure they don’t become habituated with us,” she said.“This can be tricky because they’re naturally intelligent creatures.” Once released, they are old enough to take care of themselves and often seek out other sea lions.

For severely emaciated patients, Dr. Field said the Center doestheir best to get the pups to a weight where they can forage on their own and transports them to sparsely-populated areas with plenty of food. 

Although the Center focuses primarily on Pacific waters, sea lions have taught Dr. Field and her team an important lesson about the bigger picture of ocean health.

“The increase in [sea lion] stranding tells us that the ocean and the animals living in it are not healthy.”

In addition to ocean warming, overfishing, plastic pollution and toxic oil spills are all stressors facing the ocean and compromising its health and ability to heal. The importance of multi-sectoral dialogue is essential in understanding the state of our oceans, what’s driving these changes and how we can address them. For instance, The Marine Mammal Center is working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), providing invaluable data about its rescue operations to the federal agency to help assess current conditions and plan appropriate next steps.

The Center has also worked closely with San Francisco’s state-of-the-art science museum, the California Academy of Sciences, to help understand how many strandings are happening and why via the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The network, a federal research program run by the National Marine Fisheries Service, standardizes how field biologists gather samples and contextual data to identify causes ofand actions to preventmarine mammal death.

How to Help

Connor Jay © The Marine Mammal Center

Connor Jay © The Marine Mammal Center

The Marine Mammal Center has the support of 1200 dedicated volunteers in addition to their 50 person staff. These volunteers work up to 12-14 hours a day on rescue and rehabilitation efforts during the height of the busy season. At one point, the Center was so busy it was going through more than 1,000 pounds of fish every day. This isn’t cheapat about $1 per pound of sustainably-raised Alaskan herring, the Center was accumulating more than $1,000 a day in food costs alone. The Center’s Dollar-A-Pound-campaign was just one way the Center raised funding to cover these costs during the busy season, when the amount spent on food is their number one animal care cost.

Consider skipping out on your next latte and donating a few dollars to help The Marine Mammal Center’s efforts. Sea lions are sentinels of the ocean, and they are telling us the ocean is in danger. Without overfishing, there would be more fish. Without melting polar ice caps, there would be more upwelling of nutrient-rich water. Through mindful consumer actions, we can help these pups reclaim their wild ocean home.

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One Comment


    Thank you for your excellent article on the challenges that our sea lions are facing. As the champion of this (and other marine mammal species) The Marine Mammal Center is an excellent facility; whose volunteers, staff and management are an integral part of the effort to preserve our ocean for future generations to enjoy. Without the diligent efforts of the MMC, our sea otters, sea lions (not to forget the critically endangered Hawai’ian Monk Seal!) won’t stand a chance. Please help if you can.

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