I love watching animal videos as much as the next gal, and this viral YouTube clip of a sea lion getting on a boat had me oohing and aahing. But before you get too jealous about this man's encounter, keep in mind that beneath the cuteness lies a deadly reality.
This "once in a lifetime experience" is more common than the couple on the boat realize. A food shortage caused by overfishing, toxic algal blooms and rising ocean temperatures is pushing sea-lion pups to leave the ocean and head farther inland to find food. Just last week, a starving sea-lion pup wandered into a San Diego restaurant in search of food.
California has faced a series of unprecedented sea-lion strandings along its coasts over the past three years. Since 2013, thousands of pups have been beached, more than 15 times the usual number of reported strandings. According to an article in National Geographic, a thousand pups washed up in March 2015 alone, more than experts typically see in an entire year. Their numbers are puzzling scientists and overwhelming rehabilitation centers.
One reason for the strandings appears to be a patch of warm water floating in the Pacific — known in the scientific community as the blob. This unusually warm water is not ideal for many of the fish sea lions feed on off the West Coast, and so they are migrating toward cooler water, leaving sea lions stranded in an area with very little sustenance.
Sea-lion mothers are forced to swim farther and farther afield in search of fish, leaving behind their pups, who grow dangerously hungry waiting for their mothers. The pups attempt to travel farther inland to find food on their own. And even when their mothers return, they rarely have enough milk, resulting in undernourished pups ill prepared to face the challenges of life at sea.
Complicating matters for sea-lion mothers and babies is another side effect of warm water — toxic domoic algal blooms. A recent study suggests the algae could also play a role in the unusual number of strandings, as brain scans of stranded sea lions reveal that chemicals in the algae affected the animals' spatial memory. Even adult sea lions are getting lost and washing up on shores.
"From a humane point of view, [rehabilitation] makes sense, but it's really only addressing the symptom rather than the root cause," says Geoff Shester of the environmental group Oceana. His concern is that rescuing the starving pups and then releasing them into an ocean where there is not enough food to go around does not solve the problem. Without enough fish to feed the sea lions, more starving pups will continue to wash up, especially as El Niño brings even more warm water to California's coast in the coming months.
The good news is that California sea-lion populations are still stable. Since the species became protected in the 1970s, numbers have risen to over 300,000. As devastating as it is for us to watch baby sea lions suffer, some experts suggest the species is simply hitting its resource limits.
The bad news, apart from starving pups, is that sea lions are considered a sentinel species, meaning their condition is used to gauge the overall health of the oceans, which, if the last few years are any indicator, is looking a little under the weather. Environmental groups are pushing for stricter fishing regulations, but the heartbreaking plight of California's sea lions is just a taste of what warmer oceans could bring to other animals we love.
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