Warm water causing record number of stranded sea lion pups

Warm water causing record number of stranded sea lion pups
A sea lion pup and its mother were stranded south of D Street Beach in Encinitas. Warmer waters are causing mothers to swim further and deeper for food, placing stress on themselves and their pups. Photo by Ellen Wright

REGION— While surfers and swimmers have been enjoying the unusually warm water over the past months, sea lions are suffering.

According to Justin Viezbicke, California stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries, the warm water is causing the highest number of sea lion pup strandings over the past decade.

This year more than 1,600 California Sea Lion pups have been rescued.

In 2009, Viezbicke said 2,400 pups were rescued during the entire year so this year is shaping up to be a record breaker.

Already the rescues have been about six times higher than the annual rescue rate.

The warmer water changes the upwelling pattern, which shifts the sea lions’ food source.

“Most of the prey for the sea lion mothers has actually been further and deeper away from the (Channel) Islands, taking them more energy and time to get the nutrients they need, thereby leaving the pups for longer periods of time,” Viezbicke said.

This causes the pups to grow slower and wean from their mothers earlier.

“They don’t really have knowledge of how to forage on their own so they’re basically washing up on shore starving,” Viezbicke said.

Typically, strandings don’t happen until April but they started this year in January.

While the numbers are above average, they’re not alarming, according to Viezbicke.

The California Sea Lion population is estimated at 300,000 so about a half a percent of the population has been stranded.

Viezbicke also said scientists had an idea this may happen because of the recent El Niño.

One of the problems with the strandings is the strain on rescue resources.

Sea World has canceled their live sea lion shows to make room for the unusually high number of pups. So far, Sea World has rescued more than 400 sea lion pups.

Viezbicke also said the public has become frustrated with slower response times.

“We’re getting a lot of people that are upset at us and yelling and screaming and hanging up because they can’t get a response,” Viezbicke said. “Believe us, we completely understand the concern.”

He urged people to be patient and said the facilities and rescuers are under a lot of duress trying to rescue the high number of stranded pups.

Many of the facilities don’t have more room to take in pups so instead of further stretching the resources, the facilities are no longer taking more rescues.

“The reality is we just can’t keep bringing them in because we spread everything way too thin,” Viezbicke said.

When seeing a stranded sea lion, Viezbicke advised to give it as much distance as possible because it is sick and stressed.

He said to not take pictures with it, even if it is docile.

“It stresses the animals out to have people around,” he said. “If the animal notices you or is barking at you, you’re too close.”

He also said not to feed it because one meal will only prolong the animals suffering.

Most starving pups need about four to six weeks of rehabilitation. Feeding it now could also lead to problems down the road because the sea lion would associate humans with food.

The best thing to do is call the Sea World Rescue line at (800) 541-7325.

Viezbicke said that while it may take a while to respond, the beach is the best place for the stranded pup.

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