Southern California sea lions, known for their intelligence, playfulness and noisy barking, are in serious trouble. A record 700 pups have turned up on shore emaciated and starving over the last three months, forcing the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach to declare a state of emergency as it scrambles to house the greatest number of sea lions in the center’s 42-year history.
“They’re very sick,” Keith Matassa, executive director of the PMCC, told CBS News. “A normal sea lion at this age — 8 to 9 months old — should be around 60 to 70 pounds. We’re seeing them come into our center at 20 to 25 pounds, and really they look like walking skeletons.”
David Bard, operations director for the San Pedro Marine Mammal Care Center, noted that they have taken in nearly 200 sea lion pups and counting. In one week alone, there were 50 new cases. Also joining in rescue efforts is SeaWorld San Diego, bringing in 11 sea lion pups in just 3 days.
“It’s a pretty big spike,” Bard told CBS News, adding that the San Pedro Marine Mammal Care Center is committed to treating each case and responding to all the challenges while “staying optimistic.” But finding the funds to maintain the flood of sick sea lions coming in is going to be an obstacle for overwhelmed nonprofits. Housing a sea lion costs nearly $1,000 per month, and it can take up to four months of care before they are deemed healthy enough to be released back into the Pacific. And with the underlying cause of the ill California sea lions currently being reported as a mystery, beaching and starvation may continue for months to come.
“We don’t know what the problem is now,” Susan Chivers, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, told NBC San Diego. “There’s something going on oceanographically [such] that there’s not sufficient food available for the moms to nurse their pups or the pups — as they’re starting to eat on their own — to find.”
Chivers added that marine mammal experts will begin investigating the event by performing necropsies on recently-deceased sea lion pups to determine the exact cause of death.