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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sea Lion ‘Emergency’ Puts Pups at Risk and Taxes Rescue Groups’ Resources

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

Sea lions are an important part of Malibu’s marine ecology.
The rocks at Point Dume are home to a large colony of the marine mammals but residents and beachgoers throughout Malibu are often treated to the sight of sea lions sunning their fins as they float together in “rafts,” vying for a coveted spot on the rocks or body surfing the waves.
For most of the year, the California sea lion population is self-sufficient and robust, but this spring record numbers of sick and weak sea lion pups are becoming stranded on the shore, leaving marine mammal rescue organizations struggling to cope.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach has declared the situation a state of emergency. The Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro-where most Malibu-area rescues are sent for treatment, is also swamped with sea lions.
In Malibu, the California Wildlife Center’s marine mammal rescue team has been on almost constant call, responding to reports of stranded pups.
Malibu residents can help the rescue effort by reporting weak or sick pups to the CWC emergency line 310-458-WILD and by staying at least 50 feet away from the animal.
“One of the biggest problems we are experiencing is people are going right up to the animals, taking pictures, and stressing them out which forces them back into the cold water,” CWC spokesperson Victoria Hand told the Malibu Surfside News.
Hand described a rescue effort that reportedly failed because of spectator interference.
 “[The pup] was very underweight and coughing, but a couple refused to stay away from the animal and scared it back into the water after it was on the beach for three hours, and it was five minutes before the rescue team could get there,” she said.
Hand explained that it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to get too close, touch, pickup, feed or pour water on a marine mammal.
Hand says that dogs are currently a huge problem on Malibu beaches. In one recent incident on Malibu Road, a baby sea lion was apparently attacked by four dogs.
“It’s bad enough that they are starving, sick and cold; but then they have to contend with being attacked or frightened by dogs that are off leash, it just isn’t right,” she said.
An off-leash dog can  frighten, injure or even kill sea lion pups before the dog’s owner  has time to react.
Dog waste also impacts marine mammals. Research indicates that a number of bacterial infections, parasites and viruses, including the phocine distemper virus can be spread across species.
According to the Storm Water Center, one gram of dog waste can contain as much as 23 million fecal coli form bacteria.
Once hunted to the edge of extinction, California sea lions-Zalophus californianus-are the only species of the family Otariidae that is currently a conservation success story.
Since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, California sea lions have rebounded, but their continued survival is precarious. Most other species are in decline, with less than 10,000 individuals, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
As anyone living within a few miles of a sea lion colony knows, California sea lions are noisy, playful and inquisitive. They like to investigate surfers, swimmers and divers.
Adult sea lions are powerful and equipped with formidable teeth but attacks on humans are extremely rare and there are even anecdotal reports of sea lions saving distressed swimmers from drowning.
Sea lions have external ear flaps, strong, long front flippers and can use all four flippers to “walk” on land, unlike seals, which have limited mobility out of the water.
Males can grow to be eight feet in length and weigh up to almost 800 pounds, females are smaller, rarely weighing more than 240 pounds.
The species eats fish and squid, including the market squid that also attract  commercial  fishing boats to Malibu in the fall. Sea lions can hold their breath for more than 15 minutes and are spectacular swimmers, reaching speeds of up to 22 mph, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In the wild, California sea lions have a life span of 10-15 years. Individuals in captivity have lived to be more than 35.
Sea lions sun themselves to help regulate their body temperature and avoid becoming hypothermic in cold water.
Marine mammal rescuers speculate that the pups that are coming ashore are not able to maintain their body temperature and are stranding themselves in an effort to warm up. However, most are also seriously under weight and appear weak.
 Pups are born during the summer. The animals that are currently in distress are less than a year old and have few defenses other than attempting to blend in with rocks and be unnoticed.
All of the organizations dealing with the sea lion crisis depend on contributions. More information on the Marine Mammal Care Center is available at www.marinemammalcarecenter.org or 310-548-5677, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center's website is www.pacificmmc.org, more information on the California Wildlife Center is available at www.cawildlife.org
Sea lion pups in distress can be reported to the CWC at 310-458-WILD (9453). Details on the exact location of the animal and its size and apparent condition help emergency responders.

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