Moss Landing, CA – Since the beginning of June volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center have rescued more than 300 starving California Sea Lions off beaches from San Luis Obispo to Mendocino with most coming from the Monterey Bay Area. A high number considering the center rescued 485 in all of 2008.
But this growing problem goes beyond the Marine Mammal Center's rescue territory. Joe Cordero, Wildlife Biologist with NOAA, has taken reports of Sea Lions stranded on beaches as far south as Los Angeles County. He says it's connected to their food source. "Whether that prey base has moved out of the areas that it normally occurs this time of the year or whether there's more animals competing for that prey base and more animals that are not very skilled hunters because this is the time of the year animals are being weaned from their mothers and they're out there searching for food for the first time in their lives," said Cordero.
Most of the Sea Lions coming into the Marine Mammal Center field office in Moss Landing are about a year old. Manager Sue Andrews has them doubled up in the seven outdoor pens. "They are comforted it seems by being in pens together. We often see them touching, just like they do in the wild," said Andrews. Here they're fed and stabilized before moving to the Center's main hospital in Sausalito and then back to the wild. This influx reminds Andrews of the numbers they saw in 1998. That's when California experienced an intense El Nino effect which caused heavy rains and a warming of the ocean's surface temperature. "They're sentinels of the ocean condition, and what they're telling us right now is the lack of fish, the fact that the food chain is kind of broken down here in Monterey Bay indicates a problem in the water quality. And our suspicion is that it's temperature right now. That it's too warm," said Andrews.
El Nino's warming of the ocean water sends the fish these Sea Lions feed on in search of cooler temperatures. But NOAA's Cordero says while El Nino conditions are developing in the tropics between Indonesia and South America, the temperatures along the California coast aren't near El Nino levels, yet. "We have to consider all possible alternatives. And no one knows what effect climate change has made in California just yet. We don't know if there's any environmental conditions, any oceanic conditions that have been affected by climate change that are causing the prey to disappear in certain areas. So we really have no clue as to what's going on," said Cordero
It could be months before NOAA scientists know if this is an El Nino year. But if it is, Cordero expects to see hundreds more animals on California beaches. If you see a stranded or dead sea lion or any marine mammal, call the Marine Mammal Center at 831-633-6298. You can also call that number to become a volunteer with the non-profit.