Caroline Anderson

Saving sea lions in the South Bay

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As a tidal wave of starving sea lion pups has washed up on the shores of California, some in the South Bay are stepping up to help them.

One of over 430 sea lions that the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro has taken in since January 1. His shaved marking happens to spell out "LA." Photo by Caroline Anderson

One of over 430 sea lions that the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro has taken in since January 1. His shaved marking happens to spell out “LA.” Photo by Caroline Anderson

Every Friday, Elizabeth Bloom takes a group of elementary students out paddleboarding in the Redondo Beach harbor to learn about the marine environment. About a month ago, she saw something new: sea lion pups floating in the water, motionless.

“Their entire body would be still except for their noses,” she said. “They were just conserving energy—they didn’t have enough energy to swim.”

But they would occasionally stick their noses out of the water for air.

Since then, Bloom, who is the program director of education for the King Harbor Boating Association, has seen those bodies stop moving entirely. A couple of Fridays ago, she counted six corpses scattered in an elbow of the harbor that doesn’t touch the open water. She estimated that they had been floating there for two to three weeks. Her group has watched as the pups started to decompose, trapped in sea grass and trash.

A week later, some of the bodies had sunk, leaving only some of the remains visible.

“The original pups we saw are now just bones on the ocean floor,” said Bloom.

She’s tried to draw attention to the problem, hoping that somebody will take action and remove the bodies. But she’s also concerned that this may be just the beginning of the problem.

Low food supply

Since January, an overwhelming number of sea lion pups have been washing up on the shores of California, weak and dehydrated. They have flooded the seven rehabilitation centers on the coast affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Throughout 2014, the center that serves Los Angeles County, the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, took in about 500 animals. From January 1 to the beginning of April, it has taken in 430.

The bones are visible beneath the fur of two recent arrivals who are in critical care at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro. Photo by Caroline Anderson

The bones are visible beneath the fur of two recent arrivals who are in critical care at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro. Photo by Caroline Anderson

The crisis hasn’t even reached its peak, according to Justin Viezbicke, the Stranding Network Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, who said that the animals were showing up at a faster rate than before.

Although there was a similar influx in 2013, there were far less animals. NOAA’s centers took in about 1,150 animals for the entire year.

This year has had the most strandings in at least the past decade. In the first four months of 2015, the centers have already taken in over 2,200 sea lions — almost double the amount in 2013. This number doesn’t even represent all the strandings, Viezbicke pointed out.

“Because a lot of the animal centers are at capacity, they’ve been leaving the animals on the beach,” said Viezbicke. “They’ve been at capacity for a month and a half to two months. The numbers are a low representation of what’s coming in.”

There’s also a good chance that the problem will continue, said a NOAA research scientist in climatology, Nate Mantua.

Experts blame a lack of food due to unusually warm ocean waters. NOAA declared an El Nino, the weather pattern that warms the Pacific, a few weeks ago. The water is three and a half to six degrees warmer than the average, according to Mantua, because of a lack of north wind on the West Coast. Ordinarily, the north wind drives the current, creating upwelling that brings forth the nutrients that feed the sardines, anchovies and other fish that adult sea lions feed on. The mothers, which give birth in June on the Channel Islands, have to swim farther and dive deeper for food. The pups, who usually rely on their mother’s milk until they start to wean around nine or 10 months old, are setting out on their own to look for food. But already depleted of energy, they lack the lung capacity to dive deep enough for fish, which they also depend on for hydration. They also don’t have the blubber built up to keep them warm. The longer they swim, the weaker they get.

“They’re leaving early and with empty tanks of gas,” said Viezbicke.

So they wash up on shore, starving, dehydrated and hypothermic.

Many of the sea lions that arrive at the Marine Mammal Care Center aren’t even able to eat fish. Instead, they are tubefed what is basically a fish smoothie.

Mantua believes the source of the crisis is a natural pattern rather than global warming, as some experts have suggested, although he doesn’t entirely rule it out.

In recent years, the local sardine stock has both decreased and migrated north toward Oregon, Washington and South British Columbia. There was a similarly low sardine supply in the 1980s and 1990s, he said, which then bounced back in the early 2000s. The fact that there was an unusually large number of sea lions stranding in 2013 was a red flag, he said.

“There was a food availability problem even before the ocean got warm,” he said.

And now that the water has become warmer, it has driven away other fish that are sensitive to temperature.

A young sea lion inspects a visitor as a volunteer washes down its enclosure at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro. Photo by Caroline Anderson

A young sea lion inspects a visitor as a volunteer washes down its enclosure at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro. Photo by Caroline Anderson

Meanwhile, the population of the California sea lion has doubled every 15 years since the 1970s to a current population of about 340,000.

“Clearly, it’s a situation of resource limitations,” said Mantua. He compared it to Californians’ consumption of water at a rate that overtakes what is naturally available.

“Supply and demand have to move together,” he said. “And the supply just crashed.”

Sardine stock tends to increase during periods of warm water, he said, but the process takes years.

“Until we get another period with very abundant food within the range of the rookeries, the young ones are going to be in terrible shape,” he said.

Saving the sea lions

Bloom has struggled to explain the appearance of the dead and dying animals in the harbor to her students.

“Because I was out there with the children week after week, I had to figure out how do I explain it to them, how do I make them feel empowered? How do I turn this into a learning experience?”

The students said it’s mean of the moms to leave their babies starving, Bloom said.

“The kids are heartbroken,” she said. “They’re baffled why it’s happening.”

She tells them to consider what the animals have to work with.

“We joke that they don’t have pockets,” she said, or puffy cheeks to bring fish back to their young.

Bloom said she senses an insensitivity to the sea lions’ plight from boaters, who dislike the animals’ tendency to lounge on — and sometimes even sink — boats.

Frustrated by a lack of response, she sent out an email to everyone in her network about the problem with the decaying corpses.

Standup paddleboarding outfit Tarsan, which is located on the harbor, was receptive. The company is hosting a fundraiser, Save our Sea Lions, for the Marine Mammal Care Center on April 19, which Bloom is helping to promote.

Others around the South Bay have also begun mobilizing to raise awareness and money.

Manhattan Beach resident Jackie May began seeing the distressed pups during her regular walks along the beach from the pier to El Porto.

“I saw one underneath the pier, trying to climb up the piling,” she recalled. “People were trying to pet him, take photos with him.”

She attributes this kind of behavior to ignorance.

“I’ve seen people throw rocks at them,” she said. “We need to educate people.”

So she’s taken it upon herself to do that, and more.

“Once you see one dead on the beach, it’s pretty hard to ignore,” she said.

She reached out to Manhattan Beach Fire Chief Robert Espinosa to see about making the downtown station a drop-off point for items donated to the Marine Mammal Care Center. Espinosa said yes, and May has been making deliveries to the center three times a week, filling her car to the ceiling with things like paper towels and snacks for volunteers.

May’s efforts have been so successful that the center has removed some of the items off its wish list, said marketing and development manager Raymond Simanavicius.

She is also planning a benefit concert with Manhattan Beach resident Jennifer Wallin on May 9 to raise funds for the Marine Mammal Care Center.

Although she grew up in Manhattan Beach, May hadn’t heard of the center until this year, when she saw a man netting an emaciated sea lion on a jetty.

That man was Peter Wallerstein, 63, whose nonprofit Marine Animal Rescue saves struggling sea creatures in Los Angeles County. Most of the rescues are performed by Wallerstein, who operates out of a trailer on Dockweiler Beach. He has special permission by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to live there year-round so he can have fast access to the coast. Over the past 30 years, he’s become the go-to rescuer from Pacific Palisades down to San Pedro.

Peter Wallerstein at the Marine Animal Rescue headquarters in Dockweiler Park, where he also lives. Photo by Caroline Anderson

Peter Wallerstein at the Marine Animal Rescue headquarters in Dockweiler Park, where he also lives. Photo by Caroline Anderson

This year, he’s gotten so many calls that he hasn’t been getting much sleep. As of a couple weeks ago, he’d saved 260 animals.

“It’s really getting out of hand, and there doesn’t seem to be an end,” he said.

On a recent Friday, he’d already netted and caged four sea lions by 8 a.m. He can only bring as many animals as the Marine Mammal Care Center has room for.

Three per day was the limit imposed on him that day, but the center took all four.

“We have to leave a lot on the beach,” said Wallerstein. “The care center would probably euthanize them if we brought them.”

He wants people to know that that it’s not due to a lack of concern that they don’t rescue more animals.

“Just because we’re not responding, it’s not because we don’t care,” he said. “It’s even harder knowing where they are, but we can’t help them. All the centers in California are full from San Diego to Sausalito.”

He dreams of opening a facility on Dockweiler Beach where he could keep the animals he rescues until there’s room for them at the center, but he needs $1.5 million to build the facility. And he’s been so busy rescuing sea lions 24/7 that he hasn’t had the time to raise funds. So far, the amount he’s raised is minimal, he said.

Rehabilitation

Most of the animals that come to the Marine Mammal Care Center are brought by Wallerstein. And like his organization, the center is dependent on donations and has been stretched thin by this year’s sea lion crisis. It’s already at its September budget, according to Simanavicius, the marketing and development manager.

The “public has been fantastic” in its outpouring of support, he said.

Now, the center, which is a nonprofit and is supported by its 100 volunteers, needs cash donations — some for medical treatment, and much of it for food.

“Usually we would get a delivery fish every two months,” said Simanavicius. “Now it’s every two weeks.”

The center buys frozen herring, which provides a good source of fat for the animals. On average, it spends $60,000 per year on fish.

The center, which was started in 1992, has 15 enclosures, each with a set of animals at different stages of recovery. It recently added two more before the influx, allowing them to take on an extra 30 animals. Now they are housing over 140 animals — all of which are California sea lions, except for a few elephant seals and one harbor seal.

In one pen at the far back corner of the complex are 14 small sea lion pups. Most of them are still, their eyes closed as they lay down on the floor of the enclosure or on a raised platform, taking the sun.

“These ones basically feed and rest,” a volunteer docent, Helen Batchelor, told a group looking through the chainlink fence. “They need to get their strength up.”

One moves around, shifting his weigh from flipper to flipper. His head looks unnaturally large for his sleek, thin body that is about one foot wide — the length of one of his flippers.

“These look much better than last week,” said Batchelor.

When they first came in, she said, they were “just straight — no shape to them at all.”

These pups aren’t in the worst condition at the center — those would be the ones in critical care, who have just come in — but they aren’t in the best shape. They are so weak that they might not be able to get out of one of the enclosure’s pools and might drown. So instead, they have a blue kiddie pool — a donation that was on the center’s wish list — when they want to take a dip.

sea lion posing

On the other side of their chain link fence is another pen, much larger, with a pool in the ground that takes up most of the space. About 22 sea lions and one harbor seal dive, jump, splash and slide as they chase each other around the perimeter. There is more barking than next door, especially when two volunteers arrive, clad in waterproof overalls, to feed them. One volunteer holds a wooden board in front of her legs as the other dumps sleek, silver fish into the pool, red juice washing out, too. The animals move toward her as she walks around the pool, emptying the rectangular tub. They lift back their heads as the small fish disappear down their throats.

These animals are the ones that are closest to being released, Batchelor explains.

Even though the animals are being sent back into the same food-scarce ocean, the center believes they will not wind up back in its enclosures. Simanavicius pointed to the fact that they haven’t had any returns this year. After having been at the center for an average of three to four months, they will have developed the lung capacity necessary to hunt on their own, he said. They’re also stronger than when they first left the rookery.

The volunteers and staff try not to get too close — physically or emotionally — to the creatures. Allowing them to retrieve their fish from the water is an attempt to keep them from becoming too dependent on humans.

They don’t give them names, observes Simanavicius, who began at the center as a volunteer, as he stands in front of an enclosure.

“Our job is to release them back to the natural environment,” he said. “We try to keep our distance because they’re going to have to fend for themselves.”

A small sea lion stands a few feet away, only the fence separating it from Simanavicius, eyeing him and a visitor.

“It’s so hard to do, to see them everyday without endearing yourself to them,” he added.

The Save Our Sea Lions fundraiser is April 19 at 9 a.m. For info, see tarsanstandup.com/save-our-sea-lions.html. For information on the May 9 benefit concert, contact jacquelynemay@aol.com.
For more on the Marine Mammal Care Center see, marinemammalcare.org, and Marine Animal Rescue at whalerescueteam.org.
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