AP Photo/The Orange County Register, Eugene Garcia
Malnourished sea lions pups line the floors of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach in March. An epidemic of sick sea lions has prompted lifeguards to help rescuers tend to the ill marine mammals.
More than 1,000 ailing sea lion pups have washed ashore in Southern California over the past three months, and a national fisheries expert says a lack of food source is likely the cause, not radiation as reported by some media outlets.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has assembled a team of experts to research the cause of the beached sea lion pup problem.
NOAA has been granted an official declaration of what’s called an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). The status allows for the establishment of a panel of experts to convene to look for answers and will also provide for extra funding.
On Thursday, NOAA held a conference to discuss that research. Experts said the leading hypothesis their panel is looking at focuses on a lack of food source, starvation and dehydration. Other potential causes being studied include possible infectious diseases or pollutants in the ocean.
Experts believe pups are being affected in greater numbers than adult sea lions because they are limited in how far they can travel and unfamiliar with the environment.
Over the weekend, some news outlets reported that radiation from Japan’s March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is also being looked at as a possible cause for the UME concerning sea lion pups.
On Sunday, NBC 7 San Diego spoke with Jim Milbury of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service who said experts “haven’t ruled out” the possibility of radiation affecting the sea lion pups. However, Milbury said it is highly unlikely that radiation is to blame.
“Radiation is being looked at, just like everything else. We haven’t ruled it out, but we really don’t suspect this at all,” Milbury told NBC 7. “We don’t suspect radiation because this would also mean other animals in the ocean would be affected, especially in the oceans of Hawaii, closer to Japan, and we haven't seen any of that.”
Milbury says the more plausible cause is simply starvation.
“For some unknown reason that we’re still researching, their food prey has moved to another location in the ocean and the sea lion pups can’t get to it,” he explained.
So far in 2013 in San Diego, there have been seven times the number of sea lions that have beached themselves compared to the same time period last year. From Jan. 1 to Mar. 31, NOAA experts say 214 sea lions have washed ashore locally. Last year during this time period, 32 sea lions were found on San Diego’s shoreline.
SeaWorld animal care specialists tell NBC 7 they have rescued six sea lions from local beaches just in this past Friday and Saturday alone.
The number of ailing sea lions has risen across all of Southern California, in coastal counties stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego, according to NOAA Fisheries.
Milbury confirms there have been 1,100 beached sea lions across these coastal counties from Jan. 1 to Mar. 31. The historical average for this time period is 131, he said.
Milbury says NOAA’s research conducted by this new panel of experts will take several weeks.
Until then, he says a big concern is making sure people don’t touch or contact beached sea lions since they are wild animals. Instead, he says local beachgoers should report stranded sea lions to authorities such as SeaWorld’s animal rescue team in San Diego.