The West Coast of the United States has experienced a marked increase in the number of California Sea Lion pups stranded on beaches across southern and central California during the first four months of 2015. The sight of distressed marine life along our shores is an emotive topic for those of us who enjoy spending time on the water. Most paddlers have a deep appreciation for the ocean and the marine life dependent on a healthy ecosystem in order to survive. As word of the strandings began to filter through the stand up paddling community in Southern California, SUP Examiner decided to look into the situation and report back to the paddling public.
This is the third installment in a three-part series examining California Sea Lions and the increased number of pup strandings in 2015.
What is the Role of the Rescue Centers?
Based on current information we received from the [U.S.] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the increase in strandings is limited to California Sea Lion pups born in the summer of 2014. Stranded pups are rescued and taken to one of seven marine mammal rehabilitation centers throughout California. The purpose of the marine mammal rehabilitation centers is to rescue, rehabilitate and release the marine mammals back into the wild. The names and locations of the centers are as follows:
- Sea World – San Diego
- The Pacific Marine Mammal Center – Laguna Beach
- The Marine Mammal Care Center – San Pedro
- California Wildlife Center – Malibu
- Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute – Ventura
- The Marine Mammal Center – Sausalito
- Northcoast Marine Mammal Center – Humboldt
To give one an idea of the magnitude of distress the stranded animals are struggling with, a healthy female pup raised on San Miguel Island [in the Channel Islands] typically weighs around 17 kg at three months. By comparison, the California Sea Lion pups rescued by the centers in January 2015 were estimated to be around seven months old and weighed just 8-12 kg.
Operating under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and in conjunction with NOAA, the marine mammal rehabilitation centers throughout Californiaform the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Within this framework, the centers respond to the needs of distressed marine mammals, provide humane treatment and care and investigate why the animals were stranded.
We visited the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, California at the invitation of the Center’s Marketing & Development Manager, Raymond Simanavicius to get an inside look at their role and to gain some first hand observations of the distressed California Sea Lions under the Center’s care. At the time of our visit, the San Pedro facility was caring for 140 animals, 90% of which were California Sea Lions. The Marine Mammal Care Center currently has 15 enclosures, each with the maximum capacity of 15 animals. The occupancy level of each enclosure, however, may vary depending on the health and well-being of the animals. The rehabilitation period for a distressed animal typically lasts between 3-4 months before the animals are released back into the wild.
Generally speaking, we learned there are not any issues with mixing the different species of pinnipeds in the same enclosure. The one exception is when they are rehabilitating fur seals, such as the Guadalupe Fur Seal, which is an endangered species not commonly found in Los Angeles County and consequently always afforded their own enclosure during rehabilitation so as to not further stress the animals. We had the unique opportunity to see a rescued Guadalupe Fur Seal under the Center’s care during our visit.
Upon arrival at a rehabilitation center, the rescued pinnipeds are placed under observation and their behavior is documented to assess the extent of their distress. Most begin to recover with proper nutrition, although at times they may be suffering from an internal injury. California Sea Lions can survive in fresh or saltwater and receive all their fluid nourishment from a steady diet of fish. They do not drink water.
The animals are grouped according to their rate of recovery. Based on what we learned, the recovery process is flexible and may vary depending on the status of the animals in rehabilitation. The Marine Mammal Care Center feeds the rehabilitating animals [dead] herring due to the fish’s high fat content. If any additional vitamins and minerals are necessary to aid in the recovery process the staff may pack the gills of the fish needed supplements. Younger animals in the nursing stage may be fed a blended concoction simply known as gruel.
Once they are on the road to recovery, the young California Sea Lions exhibit basic juvenile behavior similar to humans. Caretakers observe the animals closely during feeding times and make note of who doesn’t come out for food or responds in a slower, less enthusiastic manner. Each rescued pinniped is assigned a number and tagged. The tags are permanent and used to identify previously rehabilitated animals should they become stranded in the future. Unique to the Marine Mammal Care Center, we were informed the animals are not named in order to minimize the staff’s emotional attachment during the rehabilitation process.
At the time of our visit, the Marine Mammal Care Center had rehabilitated approximately 500 California Sea Lions so far in 2015 – the number they normally rehabilitate in a year.
The names, jurisdictions and contact numbers for the marine mammal rescue agencies in California are as follows:
- Sea World Rescue | San Diego County | 800-541-SEAL
- Pacific Marine Mammal Center | Orange County | 949-494-3050
- Marine Animal Rescue | Los Angeles County | 800-399-4253
- California Wildlife Center | Malibu City Limits | 310-458-9453
- Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute | Ventura County | 805-567-1505
- Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center | Santa Barbara County | 805-687-3255
- The Marine Mammal Center | San Luis Obispo – Mendocino Counties | 415-289-7350
- Northcoast Marine Mammal Center | Humboldt and Del Norte Counties | 707-951-4722
What can Stand Up Paddlers do to Help?
Tarsan Stand Up Paddle Boarding in Redondo Beach, California held a benefit on 19 April to raise awareness within the stand up paddling community about the increased number of California Sea Lion pup strandings. Named Save Our Sea Lions (SOS), the benefit raised over $4,000 dollars which was donated directly to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, California. The marine mammal care centers throughout California have limited resources. Most, if not all, are operated by a combination of paid and volunteer staff, thus donations of time, resources or money can have a significant impact on their ability to care for rescued animals.
If you witness the harassment of any marine wildlife it should be reported to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at 800-853-1964. Unlawful interference with a marine mammal is subject to a $10,000 fine. If you find a stranded marine mammal you should adhere to the following measures:
- Do not touch the marine mammal
- Do not allow pets to approach the marine mammal
- Observe the marine mammal from a safe distance
- Report the sick or dead marine mammal to the marine mammal rescue agency relevant to your area from the list highlighted above or contact the Marine Mammal Hotline at 866-767-6114.
To date, the stranding events are unique to the California Sea Lion population and there has not been a documented increase in the stranding rate for other marine mammal species, including but not limited to dolphins and whales. The most current Stock Assessment Report on the estimated total population of California Sea Lions was issued in 2011 and predicted to be approximately 300,000 animals. The estimate was made by counting the number of sea lion pups on shore.
According to NOAA, the current stranding levels are not a major concern for the overall population of California Sea Lions. They are significant, however, as they represent a noteworthy increase in the historical stranding numbers, the long-term implications of which are unknown. For additional information on California Sea Lions, you may visit the NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources website.
Upcoming public events at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, California include the following:
- Seal Day Festival: Sunday, June 28 – Annual Open House, visit the rehabilitating pinnipeds and enjoy games, crafts, food trucks while learning more about marine mammals and the work of local community groups.
- Shakespeare by the Sea: Friday, July 24 – Bring your lawn chairs and picnic as the community gathers to watch Shakespeare By the Sea perform As You Like It beneath the stars.
- STAR Party: Saturday, September, 12 – Join the Los Angeles Astronomical Society as they bring telescopes to the Center for an evening of stargazing.
- Party for the Pinnipeds: Friday, October 9 – Annual fundraiser gala at the Aquarium of the Pacific, featuring dinner, entertainment, silent auction and more.
Check with your local marine mammal rescue center for additional events and opportunities to get involved with their work.