Staff of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMRC) enjoy lending a hand to like-minded establishments, when the cause is stranded, ill or injured marine mammals. That’s why veterinary technician Kendra Luckow recently found herself 50 km. outside of Santa Barbara, at the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI), helping rehabilitate emaciated California sea lions.

Warming oceans and algal bloom are stressing Southern California’s young sea lion population, whose natural habitat is the Channel Islands rookeries that stretch between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. These warm waters are driving the fish that feed mother sea lions into colder, deeper waters. Nursing mothers must then forage further away from their often already malnourished six-month-olds to yearlings, and for longer periods.

The mothers of California sea lion pups are leaving them for dangerously long periods to seek food in deeper, colder water.

Not only does this put the health of the pups at risk, since they may go searching for food on their own without the strength to find it, it puts their mothers in the path of predators like sharks, who also favour deeper waters. Meanwhile, the adult male sea lions leave the rookeries and roam the Pacific, heading north for food until the lure of mating season brings them back to the Channel Islands.

Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the MMRC, suggested that Luckow make the trip to the Channel Islands when CIMWI director Ruth Dover requested assistance. Not only would this help out the volunteer-run institute, Akhurst reasoned, it would give Luckow experience that is sure to benefit the MMRC through information sharing. Having helped out there herself during an “unusual mortality event” in the past, Akhurst recalled the sense of camaraderie she experienced and considered the gig a great opportunity for Luckow.

According to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, unusually weak winds off the West Coast over the last year are to blame for the warming of the Pacific Ocean to 2-5 degrees above average. This warm water patch has grown, and it affects every aspect of marine life, from plankton to marine mammals. As a result, marine mammal rescue centres on the Southern and Central California coast are receiving numerous alerts about emaciated young sea lions stranded on beaches. 

Luckow, left, worked with Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute volunteers to treat and feed the stranded pups.

According to CIMWI, to compound the warm water problem, many fish are feeding on algae that produce domoic acid, a neurotoxin that is toxic to sea lions. Although domoic acid doesn’t affect the filter feeders that consume it, like small fish, bivalves and shellfish, hungry members of the California sea lion population who eat these creatures can die, or the toxin may affect their ability to navigate and remember crucial information. Symptoms include lethargy, disorientation, vomiting and seizures, and pregnant sea lions may pass the neurotoxin through their placenta to the developing fetus, potentially causing premature births and prenatal mortality.

California sea lion pups are emaciated and hungry by the time they are rescued and brought to CIMWI.

Luckow saw her share of dead fully grown sea lions affected by domoic acid over the course of her 10 days at CIMWI. But she was also able to help its volunteers rehabilitate hungry, emaciated pups, assisting with sea lion intake, physical exams, feeding and medicating. CIMWI provided her with a trailer to stay in on-site, which meant she could be the first one in at the institute and the last one out at the end of the day.

“I loved it – it’s so peaceful,” she said of the Channel Islands, if not the clamour of 50 hungry sea lion pups.

California sea lions are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, but not endangered; nevertheless, the warming of our oceans is of serious concern when it comes to their wellbeing. Sensitive to changes in their environment, their health reveals the presence of problems in the local ecology. The population of California sea lions is estimated to be about 300,000 at present, but if their young cannot survive due to malnutrition, that number will drop off.

The potential warming effects of El Nino, which can promote higher toxic algal blooms, may also affect West Coast conditions in a detrimental fashion.

The volunteer-run non-profit Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute requires donations to buy the 250 lbs. of fish per day that these starving sea lions need. If you’d like to feed the starving California sea lions, visit CIMWI’s Go Fund me page at

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