Sickly sea lion pups have been getting stranded on the coast of Southern California this winter. Audie Cornish speaks with Sarah Wilkin, the stranding coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service for the state of California, about why it's happening and how marine mammal centers are trying to help them.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Every year, sea lions get stranded along the coast of Southern California, coming onto land hungry and lost. It doesn't usually happen in February, but this year, dozens more sea lion pups than usual have turned up in beachfront neighborhoods like Malibu and Laguna Beach. Some have been found under parked cars and in people's swimming pools.
The Marine Mammal Care Center has taken more than 90 sea lions, nearly all malnourished. Sarah Wilkin is dealing with all of this as the stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fishery Service in California. Sarah, welcome to the program.
SARAH WILKIN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
CORNISH: So tell us a little bit more about what kind of condition these sea lions are in.
WILKIN: Yeah, we're experiencing quite the influx of young animals. These are mostly six- to eight-month-old pups and they're coming in very, very skinny, malnourished, emaciated and also dehydrated.
CORNISH: And I understand that stranding itself is not usual. There is a kind of stranding season, right?
WILKIN: Yeah. We do typically see animals in this condition generally either in the late fall, October/November, or in the early spring, April/May. So having them at this time of year, in December/January/February is very uncommon.
CORNISH: Now, when we last followed this story, there was a similar spike in strandings and at that time, researchers had pointed to possibly the effect of El Nino or El Nina on ocean temperatures for the cause. But this year, those patterns aren't necessarily in effect. So what are some of the new theories about why this is happening?
WILKIN: So it does still seem that it's probably oceanographic in origin, which is to say that there's not a disease that's spreading through the population, there's not any other causes that we can pinpoint, but it probably is related to prey. So these animals have been unsuccessful at foraging and/or their moms were unsuccessful at foraging and nursing them a little bit earlier in the season.
And so now, they're feeling the effects of it where they haven't been able to get enough food. What might cause those decline in prey, we're not sure at this time, but it's definitely something we're going to be investigating. It's likely the winds or the currents or some other oceanographic situation that's set up.
CORNISH: So the winds or the currents are moving away their food source?
WILKIN: It's either moving away their food source so that it's in a different geographic location where these pups can't get to it, or possibly it's favoring a different kind of fish that these pups wouldn't be eating.
CORNISH: So what's being done for the animals now?
WILKIN: So the animals that are being found are being rescued and they're being taken to rehab centers, which are able to give them the food that they need to fatten them up and then they will hopefully be released back to the wild.
CORNISH: What message do you have for people who live near the beach in Southern California who might actually find a sea lion, say, in their yard? I know people think of them as being pretty cute, but these aren't necessarily always cute animals, right?
WILKIN: Definitely. These are wild animals and they do bite and they scratch and they could be trying to defend themselves if you approach them. So we definitely want people to keep their distance and call the experts.
CORNISH: That's Sarah Wilkin. She's the stranding coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service in California. Sarah, thank you.
WILKIN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.