It’s a quiet weekday morning along Venice Beach, the sleepy waves roll into the shore, hitting the sand with a soft hiss. A breeze blows from across the Pacific, up past the lifeguard headquarters at 2300 Ocean Front Walk. Along the way it catches the scent of dead, rotting sea lion. The pungent stench lingers for a stretch along the boardwalk. It’s hard to ignore and this year its presence disturbingly more frequent. The dead pups are small enough to be tied up tight in black plastic garbage bags. The larger adult sea lions lay out in the open.
“It’s been a very interesting year in many respects in terms of sea lion strandings,” said Nick Fash, Education Specialist & Key to the Sea Manager at Heal the Bay. “This is one of the largest in recent times.”
So what is happening out there in the ocean?
In March the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an El Niño.
“Based on the persistent observations of above-average sea surface temperatures across the western and central equatorial Pacific Ocean and consistent pattern of sea level pressure, we can now say that El Niño is here,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, and ENSO forecaster.
The prediction being that this El Niño will continue into summer.
The most common explanation for such a widespread Unusual Mortality Event, or UME, within the sea lion population along the California Coast is tied to the El Niño.
Unseasonably warmer patches of water in the Pacific Ocean have driven fish deeper and further offshore as they search for cooler, more nutrient dense water.
This means adult sea lions need to travel further to find food and as a result they leave pups behind. In many cases the pups are abandoned even before they have been weaned and long before they are strong enough to fend for themselves. Weak and exhausted the sea lion pups come to shore to rest. Many never return to the sea.
“While it is sad and these sort of fluctuations do occur naturally, the extent and the level in which we’ve seen this year is pretty remarkable and it’s quite frightening in the sense that we’re seeing all these beautiful animals washed up on the beach like we haven’t seen in many years. I mean this year’s just off the charts,” Fash said.
David Bard, Director of Operations at the Marine Mammal Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, said the problem has been declared an extension of the 2013 UME.
“It is more widespread, it’s involving facilities to the north that were less effected in 2013,” Bard said. “The numbers are greater, the stranding network as a whole in California has taken about 3,000 animals into the various facilities, which is five times greater than a typical year.”
The organization is the only year round rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles County designated to treat marine mammals. This is where many sea lions stranded along Venice Beach will end up, if they are lucky.
The sea lion is a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and it is a federal offense to disturb them.
However, the law is not just for the benefit of the sea lions.
“Sea lions carry a lot of diseases that can be transferred to humans, and even dogs,” Bard said. “The animals also have powerful jaws. Just the other day I saw a lady taking a photo of her child next to a sea lion that had come up on the shore. Even a pup could quite easily take off a child’s hand.”
Ultimately sea lions are wild animals and approaching a stranded sea lion can be very dangerous as the mammal could be distressed.
In April, a resident reported spotting a group tormenting two sea lion pups on Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey at 3 am. They were seen throwing rocks and trash at the pups. A witness then “…saw one woman wrap one of the pups in a comforter and pack the animal in the trunk of a dark-colored Honda Civic,” said Lt. Lydia Leos of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The second sea lion was later found unharmed, hiding in bushes off a nearby bike path and a $5,000 reward was offered for any information leading to the arrest of the suspects. So far the missing pup has not been found and it is not expected to have survived. Most likely, both pups had come ashore looking for food like so many others along the coast.
Bard said its facility has taken in almost 600 animals since Jan. 1.
“We’ve been pretty much at our physical capacity since the middle of January and this is despite the fact we’ve installed two new animal enclosures, that we instituted a community intern program with funding from the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation and the Port of Los Angeles, that we’ve received funding from our donor organizations for additional husbandry staffing and personnel,” Bard said. “It’s been a challenge as far as resources. We’ve had to make two supplemental fish orders so far this year, just to accommodate the food needs of these patients.”
While there may be less sea lion pup strandings in the coming months, simply because there are less pups left overall, Bard said they’re starting to notice other issues.
“The rate of pups is probably slowing but what we’re seeing is a wider age group, so we’re starting to see different demographics coming in, different species – juveniles, sub-adults, and adults,” he said. “We’ve also got a couple of things going on along the coast right now in addition to the malnutrition cases related to the UME. One is that we’re starting to see demoic acid cases. Demoic acid is related to natural algal blooms in the ocean, particular diatoms are ingested by filter feeders like sardines and as it works it’s way up the food chain it acts as a neurotoxin, particularly on California sea lions. So we see these cases coming in, seizing, and comatose…”
Additionally, Bard said the recent oil spill north of San Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara county isn’t helping either.
“Some of the animals there are stopping here on their way down to Sea World,” Bard said. “So we’re needing to accommodate the needs of that event as well.”
Sea World is part of the wider stranding network, according to Bard.
“Sea World has always had a rehab program in place, for a long time,” Bard said. “They have actually drained some of their pools to make additional space and the entire stranding network has rallied to provide staffing resources as well.”
Fash believes the current UME is part of something bigger.
“Every time we get an El Niño the waters are going to warm up and prey dynamics shift and the seals and sea lions have to react and move and find a new prey,” Fash said. “Oftentimes the young, they get abandoned and they wash up on our beaches weak and sickened and many cases dying, which is what you see in the bags down in Venice. But all of a sudden now you put in different factors, such as fishing pressure upon the fish populations over the past decade and now it’s being accentuated.”
Bard said sea lions are a sentinel species, meaning they are indicative of larger patterns in the eco system.
“They can tell us things that are effecting the ocean as a whole and even effecting human health considerations,” Bard said. “There are a lot of variables involved. I usually tell people, we know what the cause of the event is but we don’t know what the cause of the cause is. In other words, these animals are malnourished because there’s a redistribution or lack of availability of their typical food source. What’s causing that is persistent patches of warm water in the Pacific that effect the distribution of things like sardines and anchovies. What’s causing that tends to be regional climate patterns, such as a lack of offshore breezes and that reduces the upwelling cooler, nutrient rich water. What’s causing that?…and so on and so on.”
Fash said coral reef systems are also starting to be degraded.
“It’s not because of one thing, it’s because our oceans are warming which the corals do not like, we’re changing the PH because we’re putting too much CO2 into the atmosphere which then gets dissolved into the ocean waters and changes the acidity levels,” Fash said. “It’s also over fishing, so we’re throwing off the delicate balance. Then you throw one more little thing in there and all of a sudden everything goes haywire. So it’s tricky, when you’re dealing with a whole eco system and the way predator/prey relationships work, to just pinpoint one thing….we’re starting to see that may be all these different factors are combining to create this big massive problem.”
While the current stranding crisis may be indicative of a far greater ocean problem, it has opened up discourse between different environmental research groups.
“One thing that came out of 2013, the start of the UME, was increased communication between the researchers out on the rookeries and the climatologists in the area,” Bard said. “So we can better pinpoint signs of troublesome years to come. The researches typically will go out in the summer and again in October to do a census on the islands and that information will probably be key in telling us what to expect in the following months.”
If you find a stranded sea lion, either call the Marine Mammal Center on 310.548.5677, or notify the on-duty lifeguard.