Caretakers at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro are reporting another higher than average year for sea lion rescues as scientists this week said the ongoing problem may be related to food.
Since January, nearly 300 sea lions have been admitted to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, according to David Bard, the center's Director of Operations.
"It is definitely a busier year than usual and we are hoping that it will start ramping down and that it is on a downward trend" Bard said. "In other words, we are hoping that the number of animals that we have seen the last couple of years is not going to become the new normal."
In 2013, marine biologists saw a sharp increase in the amount of stranded sea lion pups found in Southern California. Dubbed an "unusual mortality event," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that in Southern California alone, 543 pups were rescued in the first five months of 2013.
Bard said that because of the unusual mortality event, his center was filled to capacity with a large number of malnourished sea lions found stranded at half their normal weight.
"It was definitely food-related and environmental," Bard said. "This was something that was directly related to the availability of their food source -- either the quantity of food or the distribution."
According to a report from NOAA, scientists believe that the sardine population, which is a major source of food for nursing sea lion mothers, has moved further offshore and away from traditional feeding grounds. Because of the shift in their main food source, female sea lions are forced to eat other, less nutritious food that could result in less milk production.
"These prey may not have provided as much nutrition because they are not as high in fat as sardines," said Sarah Wilkin, a Stranding Response Coordinator at NOAA.
In addition to the usual cases of sea lions injured by both natural and human causes, Bard said that many of this year's rescues are arriving at the center in a similar state to last year's rescues.
"Overall, it is still food related," Bard said. "We are seeing animals that come in as presenting as underweight and malnourished."
Bard said that anyone who encounters a stranded sea lion should stay back at least 50 feet and report it to local lifeguards, who can contact the appropriate rescue agency.
"You should not approach it... You should not try to feed it or push it back in the water," Bard said.
The Marine Mammal Care Center is Los Angeles County's only hospital for sick or injured marine mammals. In addition to sea lions, the center's regular patients include Northern Elephant Seals, Pacific Harbor Seals, and two species of fur seals.
The center is free and open to the public daily from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.