Orange County marine mammal center bracing for increased sea lion rescues in March, April

LAGUNA BEACH – Krysta Higuchi couldn’t answer the calls fast enough.

Higuchi, a rescue coordinator at Pacific Marine Mammal Center, got the first call at 7:45 a.m. March 1. San Clemente lifeguards sent a photo of a sickly sea lion at T-Street. Higuchi asked volunteer Tom Atkins to go get the pup.

Thirty minutes later she got word of another listless sea lion on the sand at Capistrano Beach. She asked Atkins to pick it up on his way back to the center. But when Atkins got there, the sea lion had gone back out to sea – a good sign.

When Atkins returned, Higuchi told him of a beached animal at Bolsa Chica State Beach. As he netted that one, Higuchi called again – Newport Beach lifeguards on Balboa Peninsula reported another sea lion.

Just two weeks ago, rescuers had hoped the record 1,000-plus beached sea lions found in February 2015 was an anomaly. But on that frantic day last week, they realized there was much more work ahead.

And after this weekend’s strong surf and riptides, it will likely be even harder for dying sea lions to make it to the sand. So rescuers are preparing for even more animals to wash in.

“We’re starting to get nonstop calls,” said Wendy Leeds, head stranding coordinator the marine-mammal center. “We’re getting calls for pups and adult sea lions.”

In the seven weeks from Jan. 1 to Feb. 18, center staff and volunteers rescued 70 sea lions. In the three weeks since, 76 were rescued.

Center staff and volunteers are gearing up – gathering gloves and medical equipment and filling hydration bags with pedialyte, karo syrup and vitamins. They have prepared wound-care kits for sea lions bleeding from fishing line entanglements.

The center – responsible for rescuing marine mammals from Seal Beach to San Onofre – spends about $3,000 to rehabilitate each pup. It is part of NOAA’s marine mammal stranding network that includes SeaWorld, Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute and Marine Mammal Care Center in Sausalito.

Strandings going up

Experts are bracing for what could be a peak in March and April. So far, the highest concentration of sea lions have been found in Southern California.

Officials at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries reported last week that 430 sea lions are at centers in the stranding network.

In spring 2015, 3,300 sea lions came ashore dying, taxing the resource-limited centers.

Justin Viezbicke, stranding coordinator for NOAA, plans to open a triage center in Huntington Beach on Friday. It will help get sea lions off beaches, away from public harassment and into treatment quickly, he said.

Since 2013, record numbers of sea lions have stranded themselves on Southern California beaches. Experts say the warmer ocean waters have driven fatty fish like sardine and mackerel further from the mother’s hunting grounds – making feeding more difficult for adult females and yearlings, and leading to low weights among sea lion pups on remote Channel Island breeding grounds.

Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, recently returned from her annual February trip to study sea lion behavior, check for disease and weigh newborns on the island.

She said she found what might be a reason that fewer sea lions came onto local beaches in January and February.

“I expect the cause of lower strandings is because more of them are dying at the rookeries or in transit to the coast if they are leaving,” she said.

Melin found that the sea lions’ weights were low, as in 2015. And that they’d barely grown since October.

As in the past few years, Melin found, many pups died of starvation because their mothers couldn’t get enough to eat to produce sufficient amounts of milk.

Researchers in 2012 counted the population on the islands at 300,000 – a normal number. A year later, nearly 70 percent of newborns died. Many pups waited on the beaches, starving, while their mothers hunted.

Marine mammal centers in 2013 took in more than 1,500 sea lion pups – five times higher than in a normal year.

Melin said she expects the number of sea lions beaching themselves to be elevated, but probably not as high as last year.

“The timing looks like it will be more like 2013 when pups showed up in March-May,” she said. “We are expecting fewer births in June 2016 because of the poor foraging conditions for females during the pregnancy period this winter and spring.”

“At this point we are not concerned that the population will decline to extremes, just that it will drop from the normal limits, she added.

Contact the writer: 714-796-2254 or or Twitter@lagunaini

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