Sea Lion Pups Make a Comeback

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By Jean Ardell | LB Indy

           

Struggles is recuperating at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.
Struggles is recuperating at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

Field trips conducted in summer and early fall from San Miguel and San Nicholas Islands, where California sea lions breed and give birth, have revealed an increase in live births and pups that are normal in weight, scientists say. While the increase in the pup population is slight – 9 percent – it’s positive data after a severe downturn of births by nearly 50 percent in four of the last five years, according to National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency experts.

Those years saw a massive stranding of sea lions of all ages along the coast. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center on Laguna Canyon Road alone, one of the state’s eight rescue centers, has taken in more than 1,465 distressed sea lions since 2012.

After the mid-2000s saw more than 60,000 pups annual births in the Channel Island rookeries, NOAA attributes the years-long decline in healthy sea lion births to lengthy El Niño weather conditions, which have affected the usual food supply of Pacific sardine, northern anchovy, Pacific hake, rockfish, and market squid.rThat not only makes supporting pregnancies difficult, it also makes foraging difficult for the young pups after they are weaned, said Kirsten Donald, education director at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

“Yearlings are not yet efficient at hunting for food, they’re still learning their skills,” which is why a convenient supply of fish and squid is so important to their survival, said Donald, a marine mammal biologist.

She said PMMC’s experience mirrors findings from the Channel Islands by the Alaska Fisheries Science Centers’ Marine Mammal Laboratory, which announced results from its field inquiry Friday, Oct. 14. Since Sept. 21, the Laguna center has picked up two stranded yearlings, compared to nine a year ago, Donald said.

The center’s latest guest received the name Struggles. He was found suffering under a bridge in Dana Point Harbor by kayakers on Oct. 9.

Formally known as Zalophus californianus, the sea lions found along the coast are smart, playful, and somewhat noisy. They have been known to surf the waves, and they like to congregate with their own kind, most famously on Pier 39 in San Francisco. It’s popularly believed that the sea lions fled there after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, but that’s not accurate, said Justin Viezbicke, NOAA’s California Stranding Network Coordinator. “It wasn’t the earthquake – it was more of a if you build it, they will come. Sea lions regulate their temperature and rest by coming ashore.” Pier 39 offers a convenient resting spot for the adult males who typically move north after breeding season, while the females remain in Southern California near the Channel Islands, close to their breeding ground and rookeries.

“But they’re definitely not friendly,” said Viezbicke. “We have a lot of problems with people trying to take selfies. While it’s awesome to see them, people need to understand there’s potential for human harm if you get too close.”

 

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