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Friday, December 11, 2015

California’s Sea Lions are Starving. This is What We’re Doing About It.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 1:52 PM

  • David Cook/Flickr

It’s shaping up to be another terrible year for California sea lions. The Chronicle reports that NOAA scientists recently finished weighing the pups in our coastal waters and discovered that once again they’re quite unhealthy.

(Yes, if you have a degree in marine biology you get to go around putting young sea lions onto a little scale, which has to be pretty adorable no matter how grave the research you’re doing.)

Our regional pinnipeds are having trouble keeping themselves fed, possibly thanks to climate change, which drives fish populations farther north as temperatures rise. Young sea lions expend more energy chasing fewer fish and end up malnourished and sick.

When they’re too unhealthy to swim anymore they flop onto shore, a phenomena called “stranding.” Despite the name, stranded pups are not kids who have been abandoned by their parents. Rather, they’re usually at the age when they have to start fending for themselves but find they can’t keep up with the rest of the colony.

The number of distressed sea lions (that’s the technical term: “distressed marine mammal”; the institutions that care for distressed marine mammals are known as the “stranding network”) on our beaches has exploded in recent years.

In the spring of 2005, NOAA Fisheries recorded 280 stranded sea lions. This year, they had 3,340, almost three times the previous worst year (1,262 in 2013). Next spring isn‘t looking great either.

The only good news is that the coast is dotted with rehab centers where stranded sea lions and other marine mammals can be nursed back to health, including our own Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. (Which is largely volunteer-based, if you feel like chipping in. Hint, hint.)

All of the specialists at the MMC are in surgery today, but Jody Westberg, the stranded animal coordinator at SeaWorld in San Diego (yes, SeaWorld has a marine mammal rescue center, make of that what you will) explained the standard process most all centers use.

First, you’ve got to rehydrate your distressed sea lion. Even though they live much of their lives in the water, sea lions never drink, so their only source of hydration is the fish they probably haven’t been getting enough of. Vets give sea lions the same hydrating solutions humans get in the hospital, administered subcutaneously to “kick start” their bodies.

Next comes a battery of tests, again very similar to the ones you get at the emergency room: x-rays, blood tests, fecal tests, etc. Since these patients can’t talk, lab results are crucial. Assuming no surgical intervention is needed (sea lion surgery is tricky, since their blubbery skin resists sutures and anesthesia tends to trigger their body’s dive response, slowing the heart rate and breathing), the next step is fattening them up.

Sometimes this is as simple as throwing them some fish a few times a day (mostly small fish like herring), but most of the time they have to be babied with a slurry of blended fish and fish oil until they‘re strong enough for solid food, plus a specially engineered sea lion powdered milk formula.

The most important thing, though, is keeping them mellow. These are mostly young animals in an unfamiliar environment with no idea what’s going on. Too much contact with humans scares the crap out of them.

“It’s like alien abduction,” says Westberg.

After the first few days, staff and volunteers keep almost entirely out of sight, so that the sea lions are under the impression that they’re surrounded by nothing more unusual than other sea lions.

After roughly six to eight weeks, they’re ready to head back out to sea. The key indicator is observing whether they’re competing with each other for food — the number one thing a sea lion has to do to keep itself fed in the wild.

A small number are outfitted with a radio transmitter so that if they come ashore to relax (they may lie in the sun for as long as three days, as any Fisherman’s Wharf visitor can testify) the team can check up on them.

Previously, California sea lions were considered the least endangered in conservation terms. Their population increases by over 5 percent every year, and the last census suggested a total of about 300,000, the highest in 40 years. But if these mass strandings continue, they may become threatened down the line.

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Adam Brinklow

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