This was my capstone assignment for my multimedia journalism class this semester. I researched an unusual mortality event that has been occurring since 2013 with Southern California pinnipeds, commonly known as seals and sea lions.
San Diego’s Pinnipeds Just Can’t Catch a Break
By: Emily Alvarenga
April 26, 2017
SAN DIEGO – It’s busier than normal at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach, California. There are over 180 mouths to feed when typically, there are less than a quarter of that amount. Mimicking the way pinnipeds catch fish in the wild, volunteers grab big black boards to hide their feet as they throw buckets of fish into the pool to feed the barking seals and sea lions.
PMMC staff rescues, rehabilitates and releases marine mammals, predominantly pinnipeds, back into the wild in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Patients are made up of fur seals, elephant seals and sea lions – and they outnumber staff 10-to-1. PMMC Director of Animal Care Michele Hunter says caring for so many animals takes a definite toll on the center.
“It’s physically and mentally challenging,” Hunter said. “It affects us financially – we need more fish, medications, fluids, supplies and gas for rescue trucks, and our water bill is higher. Plus, the number of staff and volunteers increases to continue to treat our patients with the best possible care.”
This scene is not uncommon. Pinnipeds in Southern California are being stranded at an alarming rate. An Unusual Mortality Event (UME) has been declared as of 2013, and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, a division of NOAA established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to respond to marine mammal strandings, has been struggling to keep up with the high number of pinnipeds in need of rescue.
“The number of rescues we’ve performed over the last few years have been far above our annual averages,” said David Koontz, director of communications at SeaWorld. “After the UME was declared in 2013, our rescue efforts increased from only 150 to 200 sea lions per year to nearly 1,000 this past year alone.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act defines a UME as a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population and demands immediate response. Elevated strandings of sea lion pups have occurred since January 2013 and were joined by seals in 2015, causing SeaWorld and other partners of NOAA to rescue more and more pinnipeds each year since.
Rescue centers in Southern California, like SeaWorld Rescue Center in San Diego and PMMC, are being put to the test both physically and mentally. 2015 gave PMMC its record number of rescues with a total of 739, a huge number for such a small rescue center.
On average, Southern California sees less than 1,500 pinniped strandings per year, but at the height of the UME in 2015, there were over double that amount, according to NOAA’s stranding data. That year, 4,731 pinnipeds were stranded, and of those strandings, 1,956 were in San Diego. Overall, the data shows that five times the average amount of pinnipeds have been stranded over the past two years alone.
Although the NOAA investigation team has made no concrete decision as to what has caused this UME, they suspect human interaction has played a big role, according to assistant California Stranding Network coordinator for NOAA Justin Greenman.
Getting close to the pinnipeds may seem harmless, but research shows that it not only puts humans in danger, but the animals as well. According to data collected by NOAA, about half of the approximately 2,000 pinniped strandings that occurred in San Diego county in 2015 alone were due to human interaction.
San Diego visitors and residents alike are often attracted to the La Jolla area because of how close they can get to the pinnipeds that live there. Year-round, seals and sea lions are on or near the beach and at Seal Rock, a reserve for pinnipeds just offshore, and beaches just like this can be found all over San Diego county.
When people are intentionally trying to harass the pinnipeds, get too close or are simply just curious, it stresses the animals and scares them off the beach, according to the Seal Conservancy of San Diego, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting seals. The abuse, which according to NOAA stranding data is often deliberate, results in premature pup births, pup abandonment, pup mortality and malnutrition.
“Pups are always affected most because they’re ‘new’ at finding fish on their own and have trouble foraging and finding fish closer to shore, so they lose weight and become dehydrated and malnourished when they don’t get the nutrition they need from the fish they eat,” said Jody Westburg, SeaWorld Rescue Center’s Stranded Animal Coordinator.
U.S. law protects pinnipeds, along with other marine mammals, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that was enacted in 1972. The law was created to protect marine mammals and regulate human interactions with them. It states that it is illegal to be closer than 150 feet of the animals, including pinnipeds on the shore.
On most beaches in San Diego, including the La Jolla Children’s Pool, there are multiple signs posted on the walkway to the beach stating the law. Yet, most don’t realize or just simply don’t care, according to lifeguard and longtime San Diego resident, Matt Zaynzer. He says he sees people disregard the signs every single time he’s at the Children’s Pool.
“There are literally new, big, bright signs that were put up just last week telling people not to take selfies with the seals and warning them that mothers could potentially abandon their pups,” Zaynzer said. “And you have to pass the signs to get to the beach, but they just don’t care – it’s sad.”
Another consequence of human interaction is ocean pollution, which has caused another growing problem for pinnipeds and has led to a completely unrelated rise in mortality rates. Algae, so toxic that it’s causing fatal brain damage, is blooming along the Pacific coast, and it’s all because toxic chemicals are being released into the ocean.
“We know society is shaping harmful algal blooms,” Hunter said. “We are having an effect, we are seeing more of them, we are seeing bigger ones and more toxic ones all over the world.”
The domoic acid accumulates in the bloodstreams of fish who eat the algae, which then transfers to pinnipeds when they eat the affected fish. The acid destroys the brain until the pinniped no longer knows basic survival functions, such as how to evade predators and find food. Rescue centers try to flush the toxins out of an animal’s system, but sometimes their brains are too significantly damaged to save.
Westburg says each person can do their part in their daily lives to prevent these occurrences. She suggests people recycle and beware of runoff to reduce the amount of pollutants that ends up in the ocean.
“But most importantly, don’t get too close to the animals,” Westburg said. “Abide by the signs on the beach and respect the fact that these are wild animals!”