Scientists say almost half of the sea lion pups born off the Southern California coast this winter have died, while hundreds of starving pups are washing ashore on beaches from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) reports.
It is unclear what the problem is, whether it is an overpopulation of sea lions, a lack of food, disease, or some combination.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classified the epidemic as an "unusual mortality event," which enables more scientists to search for the cause.
The uptick in sea lion strandings began in January, and intensified in the last few weeks. The numbers of starving sea lions washing up on SoCal beaches is three times the historical average, with the worst of the problem occurring in Los Angeles County.
Between Jan. 1 and March 24, 395 starving and undernourished sea lion pups were rescued from beaches in Los Angeles County by rescue groups. In 2012 over the same period, the number was 36.
The crush is forcing Southern California rescue centers to send pups they cannot house to Northern California for rehabilitation, according to SCPR.
In Malibu alone, the California Wildlife Center's Marine Mammal Rescue Team has rescued over 90 seal and sea lion pups over the past two and a half months, as well as more htan 80 birds covered in oil from local beaches. The animals being found are emaciated, or severely malnourished.
“They’re clearly not getting enough food,” said Victoria Harris, Interim Executive Director with the CWC.
Four emaciated sea lion pups were rescued less than three weeks ago by the Marine Mammal Response Team after they were found marooned on Malibu beaches. Jeff Hall, the marine mammal coordinator for the CWC, told a Malibu Times contributor that when the seals are thin they cannot keep warm in the water, so they go onto the beaches to rest and get warm in the sun.
If you see a struggling animal, the emergency hotline for the CWC is 310 458 - WILD (9453). Jeff Hall's numbers are 818 222-2658 and 310 924-7256.
Residents are urged to keep their dogs away from struggling sea lion or Elephant seal pups, as any injuries sustained from encounters can prove fatal.