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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sea Lion ‘Unusual Mortality Event’ Compounded by Arrival of Ailing Elephant Seal Pups

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

Weak and underweight sea lion pups continue to be reported throughout Malibu and the entire Southern California coast in unusually high numbers, taxing marine mammal rescue organizations to the limit. The federal government has officially declared the situation an “unusual mortality event.”
“An unusual mortality event has been declared for California sea lions in California from January 2013 through the present,” an announcement issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states.
The Marine Mammal Center in San Pedro, the only facility in Los Angeles County authorized to provide rehabilitative care for the marine mammals, is now officially closed to new intakes.
The rescue and rehabilitation situation has grown more urgent as elephant seal pups have also begun stranding themselves 
The area with the highest reported stranding rates is currently Los Angeles County, with many sightings occurring in Malibu. Orange County, and San Diego County strandings are currently increasing, according to new data.
“Live sea lion strandings are nearly three times higher than the historical average,” a press release from the California Wildlife Center states.
The CWC, which is located in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, reports having been asked by the National Marine Fisheries to provide for an emergency temporary rehabilitation facility for northern elephant seal pups “in support of the activities of the local stranding response agencies and MMCC,” a CWC press release states.
According to NOAA, the UME seems confined at this time to California sea lion pups born summer 2012. Consistent findings in the pups are emaciation and dehydration with most animals very underweight for their age.
The cause of the current UME is still under investigation. While ring-necked seal populations in Alaska appear to be impacted by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, authorities say there is no evidence to indicate that radiation is a factor in the Southern California sea lion UME. Some observers are suggesting that the cause of the event is the absence of small fish, described as bait fish.
“There’s a theory right now that the problem is related to the pups' food supply,” CWC spokesperson Victoria Hand told the Malibu Surfside News. “The small fish aren’t close to shore where the seal and sea lion pups can find them.”
However, observers say that grunion—small fish that are a key element of the food chain along the Southern California coast, are currently abundant.
This is the sixth UME involving California sea lions that has occurred in California. Prior UMEs were declared in 1991, 1992, 1998, 2000 and 2002.
Previous UMEs were caused by leptospirosis (1991), El Niño conditions (1992) and domoic acid toxicity (1998, 2000, 2002). To date, 57 UMEs have been formally declared in U.S. waters since 1991 (including the current UME), according to NOAA statistics.
The arrival of northern elephant seal pups further complicates the issue.
“Recently weaned [pups are] on their own, are numerous in our region and dozens of them strand in need of care every spring if they have been unsuccessful in foraging activities,” the CWC press release states.
“These animals require many weeks of nourishment and care in order to return them to an appropriate body weight in preparation for release. With the closure of MMCC to any new intakes, these animals are currently being left on the beach as there is not an appropriate facility to transport them to and provide that care. This presents a number of difficulties for stranding responders in our highly populated region as well as leaving dozens of animals that would normally be provided with appropriate rehabilitative care on the beach to die.”
Hand says that the CWC is “moving forward quickly to secure the basic infrastructure and staffing support required to provide professional rehabilitative care during the unusual mortality event,” to provide stranding response, assessment, rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured Northern Elephant Seal pups.
Malibu residents continue to be urged to stay at least 50 feet away from stranded seals and sea lions and to use a leash when walking dogs at the beach.

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