It’s been quite a year for the Marine Mammal Center’s Morro Bay rescue center.
This year, the center has rescued an unprecedented 397 animals from San Luis Obispo County beaches, most of them starving sea lions and northern fur seals. With a strong El Niño winter predicted, the New Year is expected to be another hectic one for the center.
“It’s been a really crazy year for us,” said Laura Chapman, rescue response coordinator at the center’s headquarters in Sausalito. “We’ve had a record number of rescues for many species, including from San Luis Obispo County.”
This year, local volunteers rescued more than 100 additional seals and sea lions than they did in 2014. In 2013, the number of rescues was only a quarter of this year’s total.
Typically, San Luis Obispo County accounts for about a quarter of the animals the Marine Mammal Center rescues. The organization covers the California coast from San Luis Obispo County north to the Oregon border.
The year began with a record influx of sea lions, caused by a phenomenon that scientists and meteorologists call “the blob,” a mass of warm ocean water that has parked itself off of the California coast.
“Unusually weak winds from the north and strong winds from the south are causing a change in currents and a lack of upwelling that would typically bring colder water and nutrients to the surface, which can increase fish abundance,” said Laura Sherr, Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman.
Female sea lions and northern fur seals gather in rookeries in the Channel Islands to give birth and raise their young. The disruption in the food chain has made it harder for the females to find enough food to support the nutritional needs of their growing pups.
These malnourished pups leave the rookeries and must begin foraging for themselves. Many of them do not make it and wash up on the beach dead or emaciated, events biologists call strandings.
“When these smaller pups left the islands, they weren’t strong enough to hunt for fish on their own, making them even more malnourished,” Sherr said.
Not only did the center see a record number of sea lions this year, but they also started arriving much earlier than normal. Typically, sea lions start stranding in early spring, but this season volunteers began rescuing sea lions in December of 2014, far earlier than when they should have been weaned from their mothers, in March and April.
In the fall, the number of beached sea lions began to taper off but was replaced by a record number of stranded northern fur seals. The veterinary hospital at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito as of Wednesday had 77 patients in-house, with 24 of those — or 31 percent — having been rescued from San Luis Obispo County beaches. All 24 locally rescued animals were northern fur seals, and all suffered from malnutrition.
“Northern fur seal pups spend about four months on the islands nursing with their mothers before taking off on their own to live a mostly pelagic life, meaning they spend most of their time swimming in the open ocean or on offshore islands,” Sherr explained. “The fur seal pups the center started to see in October are about half the size they should be at this age and were also severely emaciated.”
The New Year is not expected to bring any relief. El Niño winters typically bring warmer water, which will likely extend the life of “the blob.” Also, the powerful storms El Niño brings increase the physiological stress marine mammals are under, further weakening them.
With this in mind, the center is hoping to attract more San Luis Obispo County volunteers. The Morro Bay rescue center will accept adult volunteers of all ages, Chapman said.
Volunteers perform a variety of services including rescuing and caring for the animals and driving them north to Sausalito. No medical or animal-care background is necessary.
The Morro Bay center will hold a two-day orientation and training session Jan. 9 and 10. The orientation is an opportunity for people to find out whether volunteering for the center is right for them, Chapman said.
“We are really looking for people to take the class and learn more about us,” she said. “To get 30 more volunteers would be amazing.”
Train to be a volunteer
Those interested in volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center can take a two-day orientation on Jan. 9 and 10. There is a $30 fee to become a volunteer, and the fee includes a rescue T-shirt. Sign up at www.marinemammalcenter.org/volunteer.