Scientists Worry Sea Lion Epidemic May Return

The Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, is reporting a higher than normal intake again this year

An increase in the number of stranded sea lion pups in Southern California has scientists and marine mammal experts asking the question, "Could it be happening again?"

Last year's sea lion epidemic sent malnourished, sick pups onto California shores at record levels. By mid-May, as many as 1,400 pups were admitted to Southern California care centers.

The numbers prompted scientist to declare an unusual mortality event.

One of those care centers, the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, is reporting a higher than normal intake again this year, though not nearly as high as 2013.

The center was caring for more than 200 mammals Thursday, most of them California sea lion pups.

"Right now, when we are doing intake, we are seeing the sea lion pups to be around 20 pounds," said Kaitlin Rixon, a volunteer with the National Marine Mammal Foundation. "They should be around 50 pounds, so they are severely malnourished."

At the time last year, the center had more than 400 animals. During a normal year, in comparison, the center takes in about 250 animals total.

Experts are watching the numbers closely.

"It was definitely linked to food availability or the distribution of their normal food source last year," said David Bard, the center director, of last year's epidemic. "If we see the same sort of thing this year, well, we are certainly hoping it's on a downward trend."

Scientists have yet to pinpoint exactly what is causing the shift in food source and availability, Bard said.

"Is related to human activity along the coastline? Is that what's causing the numbers, or is it something of a natural source?" Bard said.

Experts hope what they were dealing with last year was an anomaly rather than a new normal for California's sea lion pup population.

In January, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the cold water conditions in the Pacific Ocean have caused a crash in the number of sardines, which may be one contributing factor.

The Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro is a hospital for ill, injured and orphaned marine mammals. To help its cause, you can click here:

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