The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has opened an investigation into the removal of a baby sea lion from Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey early Sunday morning.

NOAA spokesman James Milbury said the federal probe is just beginning and asked for the public’s help in locating four suspects who allegedly took the sea lion pup and drove off with it in the trunk of their car.

“We don’t have a lot of information right now, so that’s why we’re relying on members of the public to call us and give us any information that they might have,” Millbury said. “We think by its description that the sea lion was ill, so we really need to find it and get it the care and the treatment that it needs.”

Officers with the LAPD’s Pacific Division received a call at around 3 a.m. Sunday from a man who said he saw two men and two women taunting a pair of sea lions lying on shore. He told police that the group, described as Latinos in their early 20s, fled the scene in a dark-colored, two-door Honda that had California plates ending in 56.

Sea lions are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Milbury said it is illegal to remove sea lions from a beach and that criminal penalties for doing so include up to a year in prison and fines of up to $100,000.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call (800) 853-1964.

— Compiled by Gary Walker