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Sea lions are an institution in California. Tourists delight in their antics at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, hikers are rewarded with views of thousands of them in the wild at the National Park Service's Channel Islands, and every spring good Samaritans call to report stranded sea lions in need of rescue.
But this year, those calls are coming earlier and more rapidly. Only five weeks into 2015, more than 350 sea lions have been rescued.
Marine biologists are worried that this year's rescues could be on pace to match and maybe even exceed those 2013 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). More than 1,300 sea lions were rescued between January and May that year — five times the average rate.
“During that year, we had rescued 19 California sea lions in January,” Sea World San Diego Senior Veterinarian Hendrick Nollens told NBC News. “This year we already rescued 87 pups in that same month. So this event seems to be much larger.”
The eight centers in NOAA's California Stranding Network have had a busy year so far working on rescue and rehabilitation efforts for the animals. On Feb. 5, Pacific Marine Mammal Care (PMMC) in Laguna Beach rescued four sea lion pups — the same number they typically have in all of January. The first three pups — Peacock, Chim Cher-ee and Eret — weighed less than 30 pounds when they should be closer to 70.
Almost all the sea lions are malnourished and dehydrated so the first priority is getting them fluids. IV drips deliver clear fluids and then a nutritious gruel before the sea lions can graduate to whole fish. Keith Matassa, executive director of PMMC, told NBC News that weight gain and the ability to compete for fish are the two key criteria for release back into the ocean.
It’s a lack of fish in the wild though that may be causing the increased strandings this year, but scientists are still trying to determine what is causing the shortage.
“It’s a bunch of reasons coming together to pretty much create what we could call a perfect storm,” Matassa said.
One theory is that warmer waters have led the fish to go deeper. The pups haven’t learned to dive that deep yet, and their mothers have to travel greater distances to find the food.
“The pups are going longer between feedings from their mom, getting less nutritious milk and just not gaining the weight that they need to gain,” Matassa said.
Another theory is that this area of California coastline may be at carrying capacity for sea lions. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimate that there are currently 300,000, a larger population than in previous years. There just may not be enough food to go around.
While there may not be enough food, there’s no shortage of care for these sick pups. Local Girl Scouts have made dozens of fleece blankets to keep the pups warm while they recuperate in intensive care units. PMMC has more than 140 volunteers giving their time to feed the sea lions and even do their laundry. But it can be a hard assignment caring for the sea lions.
“There’s a lot of times we cry,” volunteer Irene Gilgoff told NBC News. “But then you see the next one that comes in that needs you.”
Workers along the coast are in the tough period of rescuing the emaciated sea lions. But it’s all worth it several months from now when these malnourished pups are released into the ocean.
“You’re extremely proud and you’re extremely happy. And there’s a touch of melancholy,” Gilgoff said. “But we work here to get them back home.”