Dozens of sick and starving sea lion pups are washing up on Southern California shores and filling rescue centers — among them the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, which has treated 27 thin and starving animals since December.
Most are severely underweight and in the advance stages of starvation, and only 11 have survived. Rescuers say El Niño-influenced ocean-water warming is driving away their prey, mainly squid and fish — the same reason given by experts for a rash of dead and dying pelicans that thronged bird rescue centers in recent months.
“We saw a large number of starvations at the end of last year,” said Richard Evans, a veterinarian who was treating sick sea lions at the Laguna Beach center Thursday. “Pups from that group are now out on their own, and they can’t find anything to eat.”
Twelve pups were being treated Thursday, nine of them in critical condition.
Almost all the pups weak enough to be captured and brought to the center have been starving so long that their bodies have begun to consume muscle and heart tissue, making survival unlikely, he said.
“They’re just skin and bones,” Evans said. “It’s just a lot of work.”
Hundreds of sick and starving pelicans were reported along the West Coast from Oregon to Southern California, also beginning in December, although the numbers began to tail off last month.
Evans said the last time his center saw a major influx of starving sea lion pups was in 1998, also during a strong El Niño period.
“This is a little worse,” he said, than in 1998.
El Niño is a periodic warming of the eastern Pacific that can intensify storms.
The center, at 20612 Laguna Canyon Rd., is open the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.