“Unprecedented” numbers of dead and sick sea lions wash up on famous California beaches

A seal on a beach in California.

A sea lion on a beach near the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, California. Photo: Los Angeles Unified School District

Hundreds of sea lions and dolphins are washing up dead or sick on California beaches from an offshore toxic algae bloom, officials warn.

Drive the news: The Marine Mammal Care Center, which serves Los Angeles County, is at full capacity as the nonprofit rescue organization responds to “unprecedented numbers of animals” falling ill with a bloom neurotoxin, said CEO John Warner at a press conference on Crisis Tuesday.

Progress: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that from June 8 to June 14, there were more than 1,000 reports of sick and dead marine mammals.

  • The Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, which serves Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, estimates that it responds to 250-350 reports a day of animals suffering from domoic acid, a naturally occurring toxin that some types of algae can kill animals and even humans when consumed in high quantities.
  • “What makes the situation unique” is that many of the animals are washing up on popular beaches, such as Venice Beach and at the Santa Monica Pier, “and they’re attacking, foaming at the mouth or completely unresponsive… tossed around the water line.” Warner said. “This is something people don’t see on a regular basis.”
  • Wildlife teams began seeing high numbers of sea lions with demoic acid in the first week of June following “a major beaching event in Santa Barbara, central California, and within two weeks our hospital here was at capacity”, according to Warner.

Zoom out: Naturally occurring harmful algal bloom (HAB) events are nothing new.

  • However, “the intensity, the concentration levels are greater than they’ve ever been due to warming ocean temperatures. This is all related to climate change. Runoff from our rivers and agricultural fertilizers into the water creates a perfect storm.” for these events to keep getting bigger and more serious.
  • The Los Angeles Unified School District announced She is helping the Marine Mammal Care Center on Tuesday with a temporary outdoor space at a local school that will allow wildlife teams to help 20 sick sea lions at a time.

  • In terms of marine mammal strandings, this was “the most significant HAB event” of the past decade, NOAA’s California stranding coordinator Justin Viezbicke said in an emailed statement.

Between the lines: “The frequency and severity of algal bloom damage events along the Southern California coast have increased in recent decades,” according to the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute.

  • “Climate change and increased nutrient pollution are environmental circumstances that potentially cause HABs to occur more often and in locations not previously affected,” according to the institute.
  • “El Nio brings warm water conditions that may encourage more toxic algae blooms.”

The bottom line, via Warner: “Everyone assumes this is going to be a new norm, not a one-off.”

In photo: Race to save California’s sick sea lions
Sea lions and their pups are recovering from the deadly algal bloom at San Pedro's Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC) on Tuesday, June 27.
Sea lions and their pups are recovering from the deadly algal bloom at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro on June 27. Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
    Sea lions are recovering from the deadly algal bloom at the San Pedro Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC) on Tuesday, June 27, 2023.
Sea lions are recovering from the deadly algal bloom at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro on June 27. Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
    Sea lions are recovering from the deadly algal bloom at the San Pedro Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC) on Tuesday, June 27, 2023.
Sea lions are recovering from the deadly algal bloom at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro on June 27. Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
Rescue team members unload a California sea lion named Lainey from a truck at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach after it was found in Laguna Beach with seizures from toxic algae blooms Tuesday, June 20, 2023. The algae bloom toxic along the coast is killing dolphins and sea lions.  More than 1,000 marine mammals along the Southern California coast have fallen ill or died from toxic algae blooms, due to high concentrations of domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by the seaweed Pseudo-nitzschia
Rescue team members unload a California sea lion named Lainey from a truck at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach after it was found in Laguna Beach having seizures from toxic algae blooms June 20. Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Dr. Alissa Deming, left, and assistant veterinarian Malena Berndt administer antiepileptic drugs to a California sea lion named Patsy in a recovery room at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach after it was found in Huntington Beach with seizures from toxic algae it flowers on June 20th. Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with more photos.


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