Rescue organizations don’t have room for them all; warmer water may be to blame

By Gary Walker

Peter Wallerstein recently rescued this undernourished sea lion pup in Marina del Rey Photo by Peter Wallerstein

Peter Wallerstein recently rescued this undernourished sea lion pup in Marina del Rey
Photo by Peter Wallerstein

Starving sea lion pups have been showing up on Los Angeles-area beaches in such great numbers this winter that animal rescue workers are overwhelmed and can’t manage to save them all.

Head of the El Segundo-based nonprofit Marine Animal Rescue, Peter Wallerstein said the wave of sea lion pups found dehydrated, dangerously undernourished and sometimes battling hypothermia is unprecedented for the Santa Monica Bay.

“We’ve rescued 140 so far this year, which is quite alarming. In 29 years of doing this work, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Wallerstein, who is also discovering dead sea lion pups, also referred to as yearlings, washed up on area beaches.

There are only three marine mammal rehabilitation centers in Los Angeles County, and those facilities are nearly at capacity.

Raymond Simanavicious, marketing and development manager for the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, echoes Wallerstein’s alarm.

“Normally we would have about 25 [sea lion pups in care] at this time, so for us to be seeing this many is really amazing,” he said.

In January and February alone, Wallerstein’s Marine Animal Rescue has picked up 47 struggling sea lion pups along the Los Angeles city coastline, Venice and Playa del Rey included. The group has rescued 16 young sea lions in Marina del Rey, 13 in Santa Monica and nine in El Segundo, plus dozens more on Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo beaches.

In addition to the yearlings that Wallerstein and others have rescued, San Pedro’s Marina Mammal Care Center also rehabilitates other sea mammals that have been injured or fallen ill.

Because rehabilitation centers are so close to full or at full capacity, facilities have imposed a limit of three rescues per day — leaving many of the yearlings in jeopardy.

“It’s really hard for us to see an animal that’s sick and you can’t rescue it [because of the three-rescue limit]. So we have to wait until the next day to go back and get them,” Wallerstein  said.

When a sea lion is dehydrated, one day could mean the difference between life and death.

“Sometimes it can be only a matter of hours,” Wallerstein lamented.

On Feb. 19, the California Wildlife Center posted to its Facebook page that it recently received permission to care for and rehabilitate sick and injured sea lion yearlings.

Dana Murray, senior manager of coastal policy for Heal the Bay, said warmer ocean temperatures are likely contributing to the sea lions’ plight. She said the smaller fish that sea lions eat tend to seek deeper, colder waters as the ocean heats up.

“Our theory is sea lion mothers are having to dive deeper and stay away longer from their yearlings because their food source, which consists of anchovies and sardines, is moving to deeper waters because of warmer temperatures,” said Murray. “Sea lion yearlings are often too inexperienced to fish for themselves and are still dependent on their mothers. “

A 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trust linked starving sea lions along some parts of the Pacific Coast to reductions in local fish populations.

Overpopulation may also be playing a role, Murray said.

“The California sea lion population is as close to their highest capacity as they have been in recent years. There are some theories that there may not be enough food for all of the sea lion yearlings,” she said. “Sometimes in nature and among various species there are winners and losers.”

Wallerstein has long hoped to build an animal rescue and rehabilitation facility at Dockweiler Beach. Despite donor support and approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, that dream has yet to materialize.

“We’re still trying to raise money for it. That’s the only thing that’s stopping us,” he said.

Wallerstein, Murray and Simanavicious each advise that anyone who sees an injured or sick sea lion not approach it, offer it food or try to return it to the water, but contact a rescue organization instead.

Some who have tried to help sick sea lion pups have been bitten, Wallerstein said.

“There are no easy answers to this problem,” Wallerstein said. “We just have to deal with each animal one at a time.”

To report a sick or injured sea lion, call Marine Animal Rescue at 800-39-WHALE.