LAGUNA BEACH— Volunteers throughout Southern California are donating their time to combat the rising number of sea lion patients being taken in by marine mammal care centers.
In 2013, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach witnessed more than 370 marine mammals land ashore in dire need of medical attention. The non-profit organization, whose objective is to rescue, treat, and rehabilitate marine mammals in Orange County, said the number of patients this year reached 100 as of May 1.
“This is the second year in a row that we’ve seen elevated stranded numbers for marine animals in our territory,” said Melissa Sciacca, the center’s director of development. “Last year was definitely a crisis year. We had a record number of strandings, more strandings than we’ve ever had in 43 years. This year is certainly mirroring that in many ways.”
Patients are typically found malnourished, dehydrated, with low body weight. The center, has 90 volunteers who assist in guiding the mammals back to health. Each patient averages a stay of two to four months.
“We are 90 percent volunteer run. It’s truly a community organization,” Sciacca said. “We can’t do any of what we do without the volunteers’ support and the community financial contributions.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a portion of the epidemic is due to the shortage of sardines in Pacific water. The ailments are typically not caused by disease, but rather by a lack of quality in nearby food sources for nursing mothers.
In a statement, NOAA said Los Angeles County experienced 542 California sea lion strandings in 2013, up from the yearly average of 156. Orange County saw a large spike with 316 last year, compared to its 75 yearly average.
“We’re seeing numbers that are more than typical, but not as much as the numbers that we had last year,” said David Bard, director of the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro. “Last year, we experienced what is called an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), where we had an increase in malnourished sea lions and pups that started coming ashore in late January and continued on through the last spring.”
Bard said the caseload in April of 2013 equated to a year’s worth of work for the center. This year, at the beginning of April, the center had exceeded 200 patients.
The San Pedro facility has taken on volunteers from the Navy program, the National Marine Mammal Foundation and Aquarium of the Pacific, among others. Volunteers account for roughly 100 to 150 of the center’s workforce. General individual treatment of the mammals include stabilizing the animal with oral fluids and supplements, treating ailments based on veterinarian diagnostics, establishing a safe reserve weight and then releasing the animal back into their natural environment.
Sciacca recommends that boaters do not approach the animal, keep a distance of 50 yards and call the marine mammal center if they spot a debilitated marine mammal. She also stressed to not attempt to push or encourage the animal back into the ocean.