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Sea lion, her pup fall victim to apparent domoic poisoning

Lauren Coughlin, Editor
7:13 am PDT April 25, 2017

It was a devastating sight.

On April 17, the Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute responded to a beach in unincorporated Malibu, where a sea lion had delivered a stillborn pup. The mother is suspected to be among recent victims of domoic poisoning, a condition outlined in depth in this week's article by Michael Remski, marine mammal program manager of the California Wildlife Center.

Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute and the California Wildlife Center each handle different segments of Malibu, with CWC’s jurisdiction running from just south of Topanga Beach to a mile south of Neptune’s Net, Remski explained. CIMWI covers the coastline in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“If it’s in LA County and it’s in Malibu, then we’re the ones to call,” Remski said. 

Between April 4-19, Remski said that the California Wildlife Center responded to 18 reports of adult California sea lions demonstrating behavior consistent with domoic acid toxicity. Some of those animals have been taken to Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro for rehabilitation, while others have been left on the beach due to capacity issues at the facility, Remski explained.

On April 19, the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a press release on “higher than usual bird and marine mammal strandings along Southern California beaches.” Recently stranded and dead animals have included loons, grebes, cormorants, California brown pelicans and California sea lions, the release noted.

“Diagnostic testing is underway to determine the cause of illness and mortality and to rule out infectious disease,” the release continues. “Some marine mammals and birds have shown signs of poisoning suspected to be from domoic acid, which is a naturally produced toxin caused by a marine algae that can create large algal blooms commonly known as red-tide. 

“State and federal agencies continue to monitor and conduct research to better understand harmful algal bloom impacts on birds and marine mammals in the area. These analyses typically take several weeks.”

While the poisoning can impact various animals, in Malibu, Remski said the symptoms have thus far only appeared in adult California sea lions. 

“Clinical signs of domoic acid poisoning in marine mammals and birds often include lethargy, swaying heads, seizures, and foaming at the mouth,” the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office’s press release noted. “Sea lions affected by domoic acid poisoning may be especially dangerous because they are often agitated, disoriented and confused.”