David Koontz, Director of Communications SeaWorld San Diego
Cynthia Smith, Executive Director, National Marine Mammal Foundation
Related Story: More Sea Lions Turning Up On Local Beaches
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When we see video of a sea lion pup showing up at a La Jolla restaurant's patio or hopping into a car near Mission Bay, it seems like a funny, cute news story. But marine mammal experts are now telling us there's nothing funny or cute about what's happening to sea lion pups this year. The number of stranded and in some cases starving sea lions and five times greater than normal. And the mortality rate is almost ten times the average number. Investigations are underway to try to figure out why. I'd like to welcome my guests, Cynthia Smith is executive director of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego. Welcome to the program.
SMITH: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: David Koontz is director of communications at SeaWorld, San Diego.
KOONTZ: Thanks very much.
CAVANAUGH: Cynthia, when did sea lions start getting stranded this year?
SMITH: This event began in January of this year. And at first, scientists noticed that the numbers were starting to increase. Over the past few weeks, the numbers have increased to what is now an alarming level with over 1,100 California sea lion pups stranded on Southern California beaches.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what conditions are the stranded pups in
SMITH: They are malnourished and dehydrated, they are in need of a warm place to sleep and be cared for as well as be rehydrated and fed, and in some cases we're finding that the animals are also developing secondary infections.
CAVANAUGH: Is this happening all up and down the California coast?
SMITH: It is. It is happening -- well, I should say it's specifically happening in the Southern California region from Santa Barbara to San Diego County county. And the hardest hit area has been L.A. County and the marine mammal care center at port MacArthur has taken in over 400 sea lions against the beginning of the year. And our team is now deployed and in place there.
CAVANAUGH: We have heard here that in San Diego, a sea lion pup found in a restaurant patio in La Jolla, actually hopped into somebody's car who parked along Mission Bay Drive. Where else where else have sea lion pups been found in these bizarre instances?
SMITH: You're right. They've really just been looking for shelter. So the photos that we're seeing, the reports that we're hearing, these animals are just finding wherever they can to get out of the wind, to get warm. Many of the animals are coming in at half of the body weight that would be expected for the animals of this age. So it's really just been wherever they can cud you will up and find some shelter.
CAVANAUGH: And how far from the shore are these events happening?
SMITH: They have been of course right on the beach, animals just crawling out of the beach and resting there and then being found there. To several hundred feet from the coastline to trying to get as far up. And in the case of the car, the animal actually climbing into the car seeking shelter.
CAVANAUGH: How different is this year in terms of numbers from years past?
SMITH: We compared to 2011, specifically. The numbers are in some cases, specifically in L.A. County, ten times higher. If you look at historical average, more than four times higher for this event. And it's it's compared to the historical manual average, and it is only April. So the typical stranding season for this class of sea lions, for the pups is April. So we are concerned that the numbers will continue to rise and that the problem will worsen.
CAVANAUGH: And do we call these pups stranded because they should still be with their mothers?
SMITH: That's a good question. No, stranded just refers to the fact that the animal has come in and is in need of human care and is no longer able to fend for itself. Stranded just refers to the fact that they're beached out onto the land and need support. They have however been determined to be weaned too soon from their number, and that is linked to what is potentially the cause of this. The leading hypothesis for what has been causing this event is that there is a drop in the food supply, that the fish that should be available to these nursing mothers and pups, the supply just isn't there. And there aren't enough fish to feed the numbers so they can feed the babies. And the babies went out on their own searching for fish, were unable to do a good job at feeding themselves and are now stranding on the beaches. So we have been extremely grateful to the Wake Foundation who has stepped in to provide NOAA support, the national marine mammal support for medical response and for the scientific investigation into why is this happening.
CAVANAUGH: One more question to you about what actually is happening before you move to how these pups are being cared for. NOAA is calling this a significant mortality event. I wonder, what is -- not only are pups being stranded, there's a big dieout going on.
SMITH: That's correct. So typically with stranded rescue and rehab effort, the number that NOAA has given is there's usually a 15-20% mortality. We're at a 20-30% mortality, and the numbers are increasing because the animals that are coming up today are much sicker and thinner than the animals that came up in January. So we're doing everything we can to help, and we're asking for the public's support. The wake foundation has set up a matching grant with the San Diego foundation. So the public can go to SFfoundation.org and find the national marine mammal emergency fund.
CAVANAUGH: David Koontz, director of communications at SeaWorld in San Diego, thanks for being patient buttiped to lay the groundwork of what's actually happening.
CAVANAUGH: SeaWorld has pick up some of the sea lions that have been stranded. How many?
KOONTZ: Of the more than 1,100 pups that have stranded this year, we've rescued more than 300.
CAVANAUGH: And what does it mean when we hear that the park is rehabilitating them?
KOONTZ: The first thing we do when the pup is brought into the park, we want to stabilize their condition. These pups are coming in in some cases 50% underweight. They're very malnourished, very dehydrated, and a lot of people don't realize that these animals get their hydration from the fish they eat. They do not eat the salt water of the ocean they're swimming in. So now only are they getting malnourish bud they're dehydrated at the same time. And that can break down their immune systems. So the first thing we want to do is stabilize their condition, trying to get them rehydrated. Then they're in a very position to go through a better medical exam.
CAVANAUGH: Is it the goal of SeaWorld to get these pups healthy and release them?
KOONTZ: That's absolutely correct. It is a rescue, rehabilitation, return program, and we're happy that about 60% of the animals we rescue on an animal basis are returned to the ocean.
CAVANAUGH: It's my understanding is that the pups in some places are being left on beaches because there's nowhere to put them.
KOONTZ: That's true. Some of the facilities further north that do have limited space and capabilities within their facilities, they are monitoring the animals on the beach. One of the fortunate things about San Diego County is we at SeaWorld will not reach capacity. We'll be able to handle any number of animals that we find stranded.
CAVANAUGH: Another question to, if you know, those pups that are basically stranded on the beach with nowhere to go in other areas, are they being fed?
KOONTZ: All the animals in a rescue facility are being taken care of, fed, receiving the nourishment and the medication they need. The issue is that they're just at capacity in some cases to take any additional animals in, which is why they're monitors them on the beach at this time.
CAVANAUGH: And what about SeaWorld? How are you paying for this? Are you looking for reimbursement?
KOONTZ: This is all covered in-house.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. So the funds you're saying are still needed are for other areas?
SMITH: That's correct. Our support, we're focused on the hardest-it area which is the marine mammal care center at port MacArthur. And we've been told by NOAA what is needed the most is staffing support. So our foundation has a team of experts that we can deploy to animals and people in need. So we have a team that is going to port MacArthur and reaching out to the other stranding centers to see who else needs help and how can we get it there.
CAVANAUGH: Now let's get to what may be the hardest problem involved in this: Why is this happening? NOAA has set up a team of experts to look at why this is happening. What is the main hypothesis?
SMITH: The main hypothesis that's being investigated by NOAA as well as the working group for unusual mortality events which is chaired by our one of our vets, it's that it's a food source depletion or a move in the food source, that the fish for some reason moved that are no longer available. There were some scientists looking at the sardines and anchovies in the Southern California water, and they predicted there would be a lower supply of those in the fish docks, and those are two primary food sources that sea lions forge on. So they'll really start to look at what is happening with the local fish sources, and is there something dramatic that is happening that is now leading to what we're seeing in the form of starving sea lion pups?
CAVANAUGH: Now, if there were an actual lower supply of food, wouldn't that also affect the adult sea lions?
SMITH: Yes. There were some surveys done on the channel islands where the mothers give birth to the young pups. There have been reports that the mothers were also thinner than expected. NOAA reported that out last week. And so there is evidence that the females are also having trouble getting the food that they need, which makes a lot of sense when you look at the crisis that's happening now. Not only do they need food for themselves and their own nourishment, but they need to make millm and take care of those young pups. So everything like I said at this point is pointing to a fifth supply problem. However, we do need to take into careful consideration other thingses like infectious disease, Bio-Toxins.
KOONTZ: And one other thing to take into account is these pups are unskilled. They do not have the experience and knowledge it takes to possibly go a further distance to find the food they need to eat. Whereas the mothers who have been around for a number of years are stronger, they are bigger, they are more experienced, and they might be able to do that, even though they are seeing some effects of thinner females. They still have a little bit more advantage than the pups do. Upon there's very little room for error for the pups.
CAVANAUGH: Because they have been weaned so early, are they going to be able to develop those hunting skills?
KOONTZ: They should be able to do that. And in some cases they weaned on time. The issue that's affecting all of them, they're just not finding the food or the food is not available to them. And again because they don't have huge fat stores, they're not in a position to be able to go for long periods of time without getting some sort of nourishment. So they're going to be impacted quicker and to a great degree than the adults would be.
CAVANAUGH: I have heard that we normally see events like this if there is some sort of problem or weather condition like an el NiÒo. But of course we don't have an el NiÒo this year. Might there be some other -- something else going on in the ocean that might be causing this stranding?
SMITH: Yes. And you're right, there is not currently an el NiÒo. There is some thought that there could be something else happening similar to an el NiÒo in the Southern California waters. So NOAA scientists are also investigating that possibility. And we'll hopefully be hearing more about that and what that looks like.
CAVANAUGH: As the investigation continues.
SMITH: That's correct.
CAVANAUGH: There's also been some speculation that I've seen about how the health of the oceans might have been affected by Fukushima and the meltdown. The nuclear reactor in Japan. Is there any evidence that that might be contributing to the epidemic?
SMITH: Currently there is no evidence to support that. The investigative team will look at all the different possibilities and will consider.
CAVANAUGH: I'm going to throw one more out.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Has anybody mentioned the phenomenon of climate change that could be contributing to changes that change the level or amount of food available to these pups?
SMITH: Yes. And Sarah wilkin of NOAA said it really well last week. She was talking about that exact thing. And climate change typically manifests itself slowly over time. So it's not seen to be one of the most likely causes of what's happening. But certainly it could be linked to changes that are happening and being seen more subtly that could then turn out to create a situation like this. So climate change is certainly of concern and could be contributing not necessarily one of the leading factors.
CAVANAUGH: Does Northern California have a different pupping season?
SMITH: The majority of the California sea lions are actually born right here off of our shores in the channel islands. So the rookery there is a place where the females forage and take care of their young. So this is a natural place for the pup fist they are in trouble to end up.
CAVANAUGH: So is that that Northern California is not seeing the population of sea lions that it normally does?
SMITH: I just was talking about the Marine mammal center in Saucelito about this, they aren't seeing very many pups all the way up there. However, they have now opened their doors and taken in about 65 sea lion pups from Southern California to help out with the effort there.
CAVANAUGH: I have to ask you quickly about this, if someone were to encounter a sick animal on the beach, David, what should they do?
KOONTZ: Well, the first thing we don't want you, the first thing they shouldn't do is approach the animal. We want to make sure that the public is safe, and we also don't want to have any happen that could put these animals at greater risk. The best thing to do is talk it a lifeguard or a enforcement official or you can call our rescue hotline, 1-800-541-7425. They don't know that humans are there to help them, so they're going to protect themselves. Not only for humans but also for pets. Keep your pets away from these animals and let people trained to rescue them and rehabilitate them.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank my guests, Cynthia Smith, David Koontz of SeaWorld San Diego. Thank you both very much.
SMITH: Thank you.
KOONTZ: Thank you.