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What's Behind Sea Lion Pups Stranded On California Beaches?

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March 26, 2015 1:07 p.m.

What's Behind Sea Lion Pups Stranding On San Diego Beaches?

GUEST:

Stephanie Venn-Watson, director, National Marine Mammal Foundation's Translational Medicine and Research Program

Related Story: What's Behind Sea Lion Pups Stranded On California Beaches?

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Our top story on midday edition. The number of sick and starving sea lion pups has reached a new high. The federal noah weather service said more than 2,000 pups have beached themselves this year. Its being called an unusual mortality event by the federal government but it's the second time in the last three year that hundreds of baby sea lions have been strandedda lock the -- along the coast. Authorities think they know why but they don't know how to stop it.
Marine mammal rescue facilities including San Diego sea world are reaching the limit of how many pups they can handle. Joining they is Dr. Stephanie van Watson director of the translational medicine and research program for the Natalma Rene mammal foundation. Stephanie welcome to the show.
Hi.
Mark lowry is a biologist. Welcome.
Thank you. Good afternoon.
Stephanie you have been involved in rescuing some of these pups along our coast. What kind of condition are they in?
These pups are mainly washing up dehydrated, malnourished and weak.
And what is it that they look like?
They are much smaller than we would expect. Usually they -- if they do strand in normal years it's in may. They are ten to 11 months old and have weaponed. These -- weaned. These are seven to nine months old, they are much smaller. You can see their bones and may not be moving or really responding much to people.
And you find them in groups? Or do you find them -- single pups sort of stranded by themselves along the coast?
It's more of the latter but there are so many stranding right now that when rescuers are going out they are picking up several at a time.
And is there one area where most of them are being found in
It's really been throughout San Diego county along the shorelines. We haven't seen a specific area so it's -- we have been getting reports throughout the coast.
And we have been hearing all the way down to San Diego. Is that really true? I mean does it happen sort of they get them at another time than San Diego?
There are hot spots when you look at the whole coast of California. San Diego, southern California really Santa Barbara down to San Diego seeing a lot because where the pups are born are in the channel islands. It's that coastline where those pups would reach the shore.
We talk about them being stranded on the beaches. What are they supposed to be doing now?
For the people?
Yes.
It's --.
No. I mean what are the pups supposed to be doing rather than being washed up on the beaches?
Oh. The pups shouldn't be off the island. They should still be with their moms. They should still be nursing. For several more months. The fact they are leaving the island has served as part of an indication of what the problem has been.
That's what I want to talk to you about. Events like this have happened for the past several years. What do we think is causing this the pups to strand themselves on the beaches like this?
Usually what we see in the past is like during strong El nino periods, when the -- basically the food supply chances. There is not as much food. The mothers don't get enough to eat and they don't have enough milk to nurse their pups. Then the pups get weaned earlier or else they just abandon they will.
Theya ban -- abandon the pups and the mothers -- they are trying harder and harder to find food for themselves is that right?
Right.
And these new numbers from noah, more than 2,000 sea lion pups found on California beaches. Is that something of a record?
I think it is. I don't really keep track of that aspect. My work is centered out in the channel islands monitoring the population myself and studying the diet.
Is that a record?
We are nearing a record for yearly totals. We are only at the end of March and we are almost reaching the year level which is a round 2500.
Wow. Do we know why these changes in ocean temperature that are forcing the mother sea lions to go deeper into the ocean to find cold water food sources for themselves, do we know why those ocean temperatures are changing?
One of the things that's happening right now is usually you get the northwest winds along the coast of California and that causes the water to up well from deep in the ocean where it's cold and more nutrient rich. That's beginning -- starting the food chain going. So if that stops you don't get that up welling or it's decreased, you start going up the food chain and you get less and less.
And is this something that we expect to see from now on or is this just an unusual weather pattern that is happening?
That's out of my experience. From what I hear is that right now this is -- sort of unusual in what's going on right now.
I'm interested, what happens when these pups are rescued by marine -- a marine agency that knows what it's doing. What do you do with the pups?
There is the stranding hotline that the public can call. When they find a stranded pup. They are so weak that they are able to pick them up quite easy. They will take them to the rehab center. There are a good number of them along the coast. They are able to immediately assess the animal situation. See how severely ill and malnourished it is and a common sense they start getting them the nourishment and hydration they need and you can see through some of the video that are available that -- the stages that the pups go through with the rehab.
And how sick are they when they come in?
The success rate we look at the 2013 start of the event. Which -- this one looks similar. Just the numbers are even higher. The pups are weak and about 50% or a little greater than 50% success rate of the pups that make it in the rehabs are able to get back out which is a interpret they good number.
Sea world is one of the centers that they picked up almost 500 sea lion pups this year and released about 75. That's the latest number I could get back into the ocean. Do you think the most of the rescued pups will be able to be returned to the ocean?
For this year we are still waiting to see what the numbers are. If the more malnourished a pup is and the youngster is when it wash its on shore -- washes on shore. Even before 2013 we saw the increase it decreases the chance of them being able to make it. We are trying to see what happens as the next months go by. We will be able to go back and look to see what were the greatest risk factors.
And they are before they are released back in to the ocean they have -- the rescue work es have to see if these animals can fend for themselves.
There is -- just general behaviors. Pups playing with each other. They are showing more normal behavior for pups, than going after the food, being able to catch food that's put in to the water on their own verses just being hand fed. There are many signals to say a pup looks ready to get back in.
If it's hard for adult sea lions to find food in these warmer waters what chance do you think the pups have?
I think they have a really low chance right now.
So, even -- when they are monitored by trained people and they are seen that they can come -- they can -- they are at the stage where they should be able to find food and be released into theo seven the -- the ocean. The situation is so dire with food sources that you think -- it's a problem for them?
You have to realize if the mothers are having a hard time finding food then the pups that are being released and also the pups that are -- the healthy ones that are going to be weaned they are also going back to the bad environment. They are going to have a hard time.
Would we expect to see -- you were telling us about how the ocean is warmer and we don't have that churning that you were talking about that would bring up -- the up welling that would bring up the food source that they need. Do we expect to see that happening as the year progresses or is this the time it would happen?
I think this is the time it starts to happen. About how long this present condition will last I really don't know.
Now Stephanie some people seeing stranded sea lion pups have either tried to coax them back in to the water or feed them or rescue them themselves. I -- I have been reading that all of that is a bad idea. Why is that?
The public should keep their hands off. It's good to find them and call that stranding number but then to let the experts come in and be able to help respond and there are multiple reasons for. The first is to protect the health of the people that are responding. These sea lions while they are malnourished one of the consequences is they have a compromised immune system and we are seeing many of them having infections like salmonella that can be passed to people. People need to be careful and understand these are sick animals and they do have diseases that can be transmitted.
And if you don't know how to do it and you pick one up they may bite you.
That's right. Bites are a risk and people should really stay back and let the experts respond.
And why shouldn't you -- you know may -- if a sea lion is hungry to try to give it food like -- you know some sort of fish food or something like that. Why is that not a good idea?
When it's another interaction of humans with marine mammals which according to the protection act that's a law that we aren't allowed to do that without a permit. Then the second is there is a specific type of diets and food that they need and when they get in they don't necessarily just start by getting fish or whole foods fed to them. That's really the experts help getting them the hydration and the kind of food that's specifically made for them.
They can't eat that -- the kind of food if you put apish in front of them that's really not what they are supposed to eat at this stage of their life.
That's correct. We -- earlier question that you asked mark. In 2013 they did some tagging studies with the pups and -- that were released from the centers and found out of 16 pup that were tagged, 14 appeared to have survived at least months afterward. I think it's them getting to -- again this was 2013. They needed to get big enough so that they were able to go far enough to find the food. We will wait and see what happens this year.
One last thing act people intervening. Some people have been seen trying to coax them back into the water. From what I understand the reason that they are out of the water is because they are -- they may me subject to hypothermia if they go back in.
That's right. They don't have that fat layer that you would like them to have that they normally get from mom's milk. Putting them back in the water. They are out of the water for a reason. Again, letting the right people come in and help them get the care they need.
What should people do if they want to help?
There are outstanding ways to help right now. The -- the best way people can help is by calling the stranding network hotline when they see a stranded sea lion and the second is to donate. These funds, much needed funds are being used to support the response effort, to support the people. The fish and the food and the weight foundation right now has been a great supporter of this in 2013 and 2015 and have put out a matching grant challenge. they will match dollar for dollar whatever amount the public donates. Up to 25,000 with a 50,000 Donor goal.
So -- and we will put it on the website too. Can you tell us what that number is that you have been referring to?
This response call line is 1-800-541-7325. If folks are interested they can go to mmmf.org.
I have been speaking to Stephanie with the Natalma Rene mammal foundation and mark lowry with the noah fishery service. Thank you both.
Thank you.
Thank you.