Sea lions desperate for nourishment dying off in alarming numbers on California

Marine Mammal Center volunteer supervisor Sonny Knaub, left, and Satellite Animal Husbandry Manager Lauren Campbell, right, feed harbor seal formula to Hufflepuff, a harbor seal pup at the Marine Mammal Center in Moss Landing, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

It’s 7:30 a.m. at the Marine Mammal Center, and the sea lion pups are famished. For the past five weeks, volunteers have been desperately trying to nurse back to health more than a hundred sea lions found stranded along the state’s beaches in a mystery that’s threatening one of California’s most lovable sea creatures. Three times or more each day, the volunteers snake tubes filled with pureed herring and fish oil down emaciated pups’ esophagi to deliver a chicken soup of the sea directly into these sickly mammals’ stomachs. Covering the pups’ eyes with a towel does little to stop them from locking their jaws. “It’s good when they’re averse to it,” said volunteer Sonny Knaub, 26. “We want to keep them wild.”  Each day, dog crates with sick sea lions arrive here and at four other locations from San Luis Obispo to Fort Bragg in what’s alarmingly become a third year of massive sea lion pup die-offs. And if the trend continues, marine biologists warn, it could deplete an entire generation of California sea lions. One desperate and hungry pup was found Wednesday beside busy Skyline Boulevard in San Francisco, more than 1,000 feet from the ocean. Scientists say changes in the coastal California Current have pushed fish populations farther from the sea lion rookeries in the Channel Islands, where the pups are born around June. And the diminishing number of sardines and anchovies have forced nursing mothers to switch to rockfish and squid. These changes are believed to have contributed to a lower quality of milk and higher number of malnourished pups.  “These pups should still be nursing. They don’t have the skills to catch food on their own,” said Shawn Johnson, director of the center’s veterinary science department. It’s not the first time the California sea lion population has been threatened. By the mid-1970s, hunting and exposure to DDT had reduced the population to about 11,000. But that trajectory was reversed in 1972 with the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on DDT. Sea lion colonies rebounded; the current population is just under 300,000, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. But some marine biologists feel the population is now bumping up against the limit of what the environment can support. Last year, the Marine Mammal Center, whose Moss Landing outpost is used mainly for triage, took in about 250 sea lion pups, mostly in March and April. The center is halfway to that number now, and it’s only February. Although these pups are 8 months old, they weigh only four or five pounds more than their average birth weight. “You shouldn’t be able to see their hip bones,” said Lauren Campbell, an animal husbandry manager at the center, referring to the site’s new arrivals, Laddie and Japes, both 8 months old. The pair was found in Santa Barbara earlier this week and transported to the Moss Landing site Wednesday afternoon. More