A sea lion recently nursed back to health will be released by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center Tuesday into the ocean at Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach.
The center usually doesn’t see any ill sea lions washing ashore this time of the year, but already more than two dozen have needed treatment by the only licensed agency in the Orange County.
At most, two or three might end up on the beach and need a rescue, but the center has taken in 28 this month while 13 sea lion pups washed ashore in December, Executive Director Keith Matassa said.
Further alarming the center’s experts is an influx of varying species, Matassa added.
“The difference this year is we’re also seeing different species we don’t normally see down here,” Matassa said.
For instance, there have been sightings of fur seals who are usually seen further north, Matassa said.
The center’s officials are also concerned that adult sea lions are washing up ashore ill — usually it’s only the young who require rescues, Matassa said.
In 2013, a record-setting year, the problem of sea lions coming ashore was limited mostly to Southern California, but now the entire coast is being affected, Matassa said.
One theory is that the fish the sea lions feed on have moved due to changing currents and temperatures. Sea lion mothers are “working double time to produce milk to nurse pups… and the milk’s not as nutritious,” Matassa said.
Most experts pin the problem on climate change affecting the habitat, creating a domino effect of problems, Matassa said.
Research has shown radiation from the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Japan did not pose any issues for the sea lions, Matassa added.
The experts have also ruled out any diseases plaguing the sea lions, Matassa said.
“There just isn’t one smoking gun,” he said.
The influx of sick sea lions has put a heavy burden on the center, which doesn’t usually have to start ramping up services until the spring, Matassa said. The center expects it could be just as bad as 2013 because it’s an El Nino year, he added.
“This is even busier now than it was in 2013,” Matassa said. “All of this is putting a strain on our budget because we’re 100 percent donor funded.”
The center will receive a $10,000 donation today from a restaurant group — The Deck on Laguna Beach, the Bungalows at Pacific Edge Hotel and Driftwood Kitchen.
—City News Service