UPDATED: Sea lions starving again in La Jolla

Stranded marine mammal numbers double those of 2013 epidemic

Sea lion pups at La Jolla Cove and elsewhere along the Southern California coastline are showing the same signs of severe malnourishment and dehydration seen in early 2013 — albeit in far greater numbers.

Justin Viezbicke, a stranding network coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said since Jan. 1, NOAA and its partners have rescued about 250 sea lions (mostly pups, though some young adults) — nearly double the amount rescued during the same period in 2013.

Although Viezbicke said NOAA researchers have not yet determined the cause of the mass starvation, he said the unseasonably warm waters from an expected El Nino event could be affecting their food supply. Sea lions eat squid, anchovies and other oily fish, which contribute to the pungent odor of their waste.

With a population of more than 300,000, Viezbicke said California sea lions could be reaching carrying capacity — the point at which there is not enough food in the coastal waters to sustain their growing population.

Jody Westberg, a stranded animal coordinator with SeaWorld San Diego, said since Jan. 1 she and her team have rescued 87 sea lions from the San Diego County coastline, including more than 20 from La Jolla.

“Historically, we would rescue the largest number in May,” Westberg said, though noting that during the 2013 starvation, they saw the largest influx of stranded sea lions in March, when they rescued more than 200 animals.

Born six to eight months ago in the Channel Islands, the sea lion pups should now weigh 55-60 pounds, Westberg said, adding SeaWorld is rescuing them at 22-30 pounds, just a few pounds over their birth weight.

“It is heart-wrenching when you see these pups and how emaciated they are,” Westberg said. “You can see the animals’ ribs. Their skin is really loose; it looks like a baggy pair of pajamas.”

Although the situation appears to be as bad or worse than in 2013, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has not yet declared the situation an Unusual Mortality Event, as it did then.

Westberg said people who spot malnourished sea lions should not approach them, but phone a lifeguard or the authorities, or contact SeaWorld’s rescue hotline at (800) 541-7325 (SEAL).

SeaWorld will pick up the starving pups and bring them back to their medical facility to recuperate, before returning them to the wild. SeaWorld’s animal care specialists and veterinarians are treating the animals with hydration, nutrition and, when necessary, antibiotics. Animals are first stabilized and then provided nourishment and veterinary care until they are strong, of healthy weight and able to forage for themselves.

Although a city spokesperson told the Light it has no plans at this time to lock the gate allowing human access to the bluffs, SeaWorld spokesperson David Koontz cautioned: “These are wild animals. Sea lions don’t understand that people are trying to help, so they will defend themselves. Even a malnourished, dehydrated pup can be very dangerous (and carry bacteria and disease). We want to maintain the safety of our citizens and tourists, as well as the safety of the animals.”

Westerberg added, “We don’t want them to be scared back into the water, because then we can’t give them the help they need.”

NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Jim Milbury said researchers are assessing the situation in the Channel Islands, where sea lions give birth, and will return soon to report their findings.