A toxic algal bloom causing sea lions on Southern California beaches to act unpredictably is expected to be the “new normal,” a marine mammal expert told Insider.
In the last month, people have seen sea lions in Southern California beaches from Ventura County to San Diego county exhibiting strange behavior.
According to Insider, the CEO of Marine Mammal Care Center, Los Angeles, John Warner said that sea lions showing up on beaches in “crowded environments with humans” is not normal.
But pinnipeds are also showing up at shore in odd ways. They bobble their heads from side to side, or extend them forward, while foaming in the mouth. In some cases they even act aggressively towards beachgoers. One woman shared a Facebook post describing a run-in with a sea lion that bit her while she was on a 5K swim.
“We’re seeing them everywhere, every day, and it’s because they are sick,” Warner said.
The cause is a toxic algal bloom that experts have told Insider is the “worst outbreak” in Southern California yet. Fish, especially sardines and anchovies, feed on the neurotoxin-producing algae and eventually poison large marine mammals with domoic acid when they’re consumed, Warner said.
The toxin causes sea lions’ strange behavior, causing them to come to the shore and show symptoms of seizures. Many sea lions and dolphins have also died after being poisoned by domoic acid.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries said the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, which is headquartered in Santa Barbara, received more than 1,000 reports of sick and dead marine mammals between June 8 and June 14, USA Today reported.
Warner said to Insider that his center has been overwhelmed by marine mammal cases in recent weeks. This is putting strain on its resources.
The CEO said the facility currently has about 120 patients; 80 of which are sea lions impacted by domoic acid. A triage center was set up nearby with the help of the Los Angeles Unified School District, he said.
As marine life agencies scramble to aid the sea lions, Warner said the issue with the toxic algal bloom is not expected to be resolved anytime soon.
All across the US, algal blooms have grown out of control, and the top contributing factor is warming ocean temperatures, according to the Environmental Working Group.
NOAA reported in its monthly climate report that ocean temperatures had reached records in May. ABC News .
“Warner said that the algae blooms were bigger and more intense than ever before. “And it is expected that this will become a new normal.”
Warner added that the abundance of toxic algae arrived “at the worst possible moment for sea lions.”
A majority of sea lions in California are born in June due to a unique, shared biological phenomenon, Warner said. The toxic algae is also affecting the breeding grounds of California’s Channel Islands, which are home to the majority of sea lions.
” The Channel Islands is an essential ecosystem for California Sea Lions and they happen to be right in the middle this toxic algal outbreak.
Due to the algal bloom, Warner said that sea lions were giving birth along the beaches of Los Angeles. Many pups died.
In addition, late June to early August is breeding season for the California sea lion, according to NOAA. Warner stated that this means males will be arriving soon.
“These are sea lions that weigh anywhere from 300 to 700 pounds,” Warner said. “If they start coming up on beaches with domoic acid poisoning — that is something we can’t deal with. They’re too large and too aggressive and become even more of a public safety issue.”
There’s also the potential risk of the algal bloom coming close to shore, impacting other pinniped species such as harbor or elephant seals, according to Warner.
“We’re really crossing our fingers that those two additional impacts don’t happen,” Warner said. “The warning needs to go out that, if that happens, this situation becomes even more precarious.”
Warner said that the main course of action for the general public is to leave the sea lions that come to shore alone and to notify a lifeguard or call a nearby marine mammal agency such as the Marine Mammal Care Center.
Sometimes, the sea lions are able to flush the acid out of their system if they get enough rest in a stress-free environment, Warner said.
“It’s sad to watch an animal suffer, and we can’t be at every single animal immediately — sometimes for a couple of days given the sheer volume right now — and it’s tough,” he said.
The Marine Mammal Care Center is also accepting volunteers and donations.