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High numbers of sea lions rescued in Malibu

A sea lion pup receives a fish milkshake at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu. Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
California Wildlife center volunteer Leslie Lentz (left to right), assistant marine mammal coordinator Jonsie Ross and marine mammal rehabilitation manager Michael Remski examine, weigh and measure a new arrival.
Three sea lion pups exhibit signs of successful recovery at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu.
California Wildlife Center assistant marine mammal coordinator Jonsie Ross and volunteer Leslie Lentz carry a rescued sea lion to the marine mammal facility.
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
2:31 pm PST March 3, 2015

The official start of spring is still three weeks away, but all along the California coast record numbers of sick, malnourished and dying sea lion pups are washing ashore, and rescue facilities are already overwhelmed. 

The Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, the largest local center for marine mammal rehabilitation, is reporting five times as many sea lion pups as usual and more than twice as many for the same time period in 2013, when the number of sea lion deaths was officially declared an unusual mortality event.

At the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, the Marine Mammal Response Team had been preparing for the annual arrival of elephant seal pups in early March, instead they are struggling to cope with a flood of sea lions.

“We’ve been thrown into the season,” marine mammal rehabilitation manager Michael Remski told the Malibu Surfside News. “We’re set up for elephant seals. The pups usually start arriving the first week of March. The sea lion pups are a little unexpected. We are going to be at our max pretty soon.”

The Malibu facility can handle about 25 sea lion pups, but it is already swamped, and more animals arrive every day. Two pups — one from Point Dume, the other found at Malibu Road — arrived while Remski was speaking to the Surfside News. Staff and volunteers hurried to examine, weigh and measure the new animals and check their temperatures. 

The pups — both females — were given fluids and marked with a number — 18 and 19 — before being added to the sea lion enclosure. Both were dehydrated and seriously underweight. 

“They’re really skinny,” assistant marine mammal coordinator Jonsie Ross said. “This one weighs 25 pounds. She should weigh 50-75 pounds.”

New arrivals are weak and seem to take comfort in huddling together in small groups. Pups that have had several days to recover are lively, curious and playful, roughhousing with each other and interested in the activity outside the enclosure. The animals usually need between one and two months of rehabilitation before they can return to the ocean.

“Our best guess is that the moms are leaving them longer than normal to look for food,” Remski said. “There’s less fish near shore.”

According to NOAA, warmer than normal sea temperatures have caused sardines and anchovies — small, fatty fish that are critical to the survival of many marine mammal species, including sea lions and elephant seals — to move further from shore. 

The sea lion pups don’t have the endurance to swim out into the deep water, and become weak with hunger and dehydration, washing up on local beaches, sometimes with tragic results. Numerous dead pups have been reported on Malibu beaches this month and one pup was recently attacked by a dog at Paradise Cove and died of its injuries. 

Malibu residents can help by reporting stranded pups to the CWC by calling 310-458-WILD. However, marine mammal response team staff stress that they are stretched to the limit and cannot respond immediately to every call. 

Beachgoers are asked to keep their dogs off the beach and rescuers caution that sea lion pups — even the smallest — can bite if they feel threatened. 

“One person brought us a pup wrapped in a blanket,” CWC Interim Executive Director Victoria Harris said. “We definitely don’t recommend that.” She stressed that pups should be left alone until trained rescuers arrive.

The number of animals that can be rescued and rehabilitated is very small compared to the total number of pups in distress. During the unusual mortality event in 2013, Federal officials estimated that 70 percent of the total number of sea lion pups along the California  may have died and experts say that the numbers may be even higher this year.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Harris said.

Harris told the Surfside News that the CWC is struggling to raise funds to keep up with the new arrivals. The pups require massive amounts of fish, but the marine mammal area also urgently needs a new washer and dryer, and supplies like medications and pig blankets — waterproof blankets designed to keep farm animals warm and equally useful for sea lion pups.

They are also bracing for the arrival of elephant seal pups. At the moment the facility has only one, but more are expect to arrive any day. 

More information on the sea lion crisis is available at http://marinemammalcare.org. Donations can be made directly to the Malibu-based  CWC’s sea lion fund at https://30583.thankyou4caring.org/sea-lion-pup-fund. More information on the CWC and its marine mammal rescue team can be found at http://www.cawildlife.org. Updates on the sea lions and other wild patients are posted daily at https://www.facebook.com/californiawildlifecenter