A Laguna Beach-based marine life rescue group has seen such an increase in the number of severely dehydrated and malnourished sea lion pups this season that the organization is calling it an epidemic.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescued a dozen sea lions Saturday, a record for the nonprofit in a single day, according to the group's head of development, Melissa Sciacca.
"It's absolutely in crisis mode in our center," Sciacca said.
Eighty-six marine mammals are now being treated there, she said, adding that all but two are sea lions, Sciacca said.
"We haven't had this number of animals in 15 years," Sciacca said. It was a particularly rainy "El Nino" year in 1998.
Most of the sea lion pups are coming ashore severely malnourished and dehydrated, Sciacca said. The problem has reached "epidemic proportions" along the Orange County coast, she said.
"There are a lot of ideas out there on what might be happening," she said. "Some of the ideas being discussed are the mothers might be swimming further to forage for food. It's also possible the mothers are not properly nourished and the pups are having to wean earlier."
Sciacca warned people about approaching sick sea lions.
"If you see an animal on the beach please don't approach it," Sciacca said. "Do not chase that animal back into the water. They're coming to the land for a reason."
Domoic acid poisoning, caused by a naturally occurring algae bloom, periodically sickens, and sometimes kills, sea lions, pelicans, and dolphins.
Anyone who finds an ill sea mammal was urged to call the Pacific Marine Mammal Center at (949) 494-3050. The center also seeksr donations to help defray the costs of caring for the sick pups, Sciacca said.
The center started noticing the increase in sick sea lion pups in February, Sciacca said.