California Is In the Middle of a Sea Lion Crisis

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In January and February of 2015, over 1,450 sea lions have appeared on the beaches of California in need of rescue. The reason? Experts believe that their food is being driven away from the islands where sea lions breed, forcing immature sea lions to enter the sea in a search for food. And ending up on the coast, from San Diego to San Francisco.

Image credit: California Sea Lion by John Morgan/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Weak winds from the north have prevented cooler air from hitting these seas, while there have been stronger warm winds from the south. As a result, water temperatures are two to five degrees warmer than usual. And, unless there is a sudden — and unlikely — shift in wind, the warm temperatures will continue. The warm waters, scientists say, are preventing sea lion mothers from finding enough anchovies, mackerel, sardines and other fish to properly nurse their pups.


Worried that they're being abandoned by their mothers, pups are leaving the Channel Islands to search for food. They are too young to be any good at fending for themselves, so they wash ashore on beaches, under piers, and in backyards. Shawn Johnson, the director of veterinary science at Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito told The New York Times:

They come ashore because if they didn't, they would drown. They're just bones and skin. They're really on the brink of death.


The report on this situation in The New York Times is sobering: sea lion rescues in California are five times higher than usual, SeaWorld San Diego announced it would shut its sea lion and otter show for two weeks so six of its specialists could aid in the rescue-and-recovery operations, and — even with the extra help — only about 720 of the 1,450 retrieved sea lions are being treated.

The rescues are stretched to the limit. Peter Wallerstein, president of Marine Animal Rescue based in Playa Del Rey told NBC Los Angeles that they've doubled their rescues, but the centers are so full they can't take all the animals. He can only take in three animals a day, a limit he hits as early as 10 AM.


Even worse, this is the third year in a row that scientists have seen numbers this high. As of now, the sea lion population is a healthy 300,000, but there is concern that this trend is going to start changing that. Even the pups who stay on the Channel Islands are affected. Mothers take longer hunting trips and the food is scarce — scientists have found that they are 44% underweight. Not only are the current crop of pups in danger, with conditions this bad, birth rates may decline next year.

Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, says:

We do expect the population to take a drop. Probably not something catastrophic, but probably a really good hit. It is going to impact the overall population eventually if we continue to have these events back to back.


Johnson told the Sacramento Bee that this should be seen as a warning sign:

There is a complex process happening in our ocean. The ocean is clearly under stress from the warmer water and, potentially, overfishing. These sea lions are telling us we should be very concerned about the health of our oceans.