When I first began writing about our local waters seven and a half years ago, the words “domoic acid” hit my radar.

I found that it was a naturally occurring “harmful algae bloom” that sadly serves as a poison beginning at the bottom of the local food chain, causing problems as it moves upward. While this powerful neurotoxin affects a variety of species, it rears its head most obviously and dramatically with sea lions.

During episodes brought on by this inimical algae, our charismatic, animated, whisker-faced friends can become agitated, disoriented and at times, violent. They have been known to act erratically and may be in locations and circumstances that are often abnormal and out of character.

My initial stories described domoic as something of a mysterious algae that came unexpectedly, wreaked havoc and went away. At that time, around 2003, there was a particularly potent bloom that kept animal rescue agencies busy rescuing dolphin, birds and sea lions that were regularly turning up affected.

According to the science-based Web site Toxipedia, over 1,000 animals were taken into medical facilities due to domoic acid poisoning that year, many of them dying. In the stories that followed, it remained mysterious but has now become all too familiar and frustrating.

Through the years, as a range of animals become sick, domoic acid is being studied more thoroughly with speculation that the toxin’s unprecedented prevalence may be associated with man-made activity. The Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute states that:

“Possible reasons to explain the [problems associated with toxic algae] include natural mechanisms of species dispersal (currents and tides) to a host of human-related phenomena such as nutrient enrichment (agricultural run-off), climate shifts or transport of algae species via ship ballast water.”

Scientists are still uncomfortable pinning the rise of the algae’s increased presence on anything too specific at this stage in the game, but many are looking closely at urban runoff as a possible culprit.

Regardless of the reasons, seeing animals die and/or suffer neurological problems including tremors and seizures from eating the fish in our oceans, is cause for focused attention. Earlier this month the Ventura County Star reported an outbreak of domoic acid poisoning with a “high number of sea lions ending up sick or dead on Ventura County beaches.” And while some would speculate that it’s a bit late in the season for domoic, based on its schedule in year’s past, the appearance further confirms the algae’s mysterious character.

“It’s unpredictable,” said Marine Animal Rescue Director Peter Wallerstein, who has saved thousands of marine animals along the local Southern California coastline through the years, including eight rescues one recent weekend that he believes are related to domoic acid. “This is the first year, that I can remember, that we’ve seen domoic sea lions come up after the sea lion birthing [period in June].”

Wallerstein sees this dilemma in the most vivid and often heartbreaking way. He is often first on the scene, interacting face-to-face with animals that are suffering major neurological conditions. He is quick to remind the public that sea lions are sizable wild animals capable of inflicting serious injury.

“I did a rescue this past weekend at Dockweiler [Beach] where a 200-pound sea lion with domoic came running up the beach and grabbed a boogie board out of a guy’s hand,” said Wallerstein. “The guy ran up to me and showed me the actual teeth mark’s in the boogie board. Luckily it wasn’t a child.”

A few years ago there was an instance in Manhattan Beach where several people on the beach were attacked and one was bitten by a sea lion. Based on domoic levels in the water at the time and the normal behavior of sea lions, it’s speculated that it was a case of domoic poisoning.

It’s relatively rare that the toxin manifests itself in such dangerous ways. More commonly, the animals are nauseous, disoriented, and/or suffering seizures. Wallerstein is concerned for the species he’s been protecting for decades.

“We’ve seen domoic over the past five or six years really take its toll and this year there’s starving pups all over the place.”

For local boaters, Wallerstein warns that they be careful at the sight of a sea lion on a dock or swimstep. During a domoic outbreak, the animals often come out of the water to protect themselves from drowning. Sometimes they bob their heads in a manic way, other times they seem angry, but nothing is always obvious in these situations, so he recommends staying clear and calling Marine Animal Rescue if the need arises.

For emergencies, Marine Animal Rescue can be contacted at (800) 39-WHALE, (800) 399-4253.

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