California Sea Lion Strandings Alarm Scientists
by Beth Pratt
California sea lions, a regular fixture alongside many areas of the Golden State’s 1,100 mile coastline, are known for their playful dog-like antics and social manner. Tourists from all over the globe visit Fisherman’s Wharf, Point Lobos, Channel Islands and other gathering areas to catch a glimpse of these animals, once referred to as “dog-headed mermaids.”
Since their listing under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the California sea lion population has increased to more than 200,000 animals and is thought to be within its “optimum population limits.” Yet the animal still faces threats, such as death from harmful algal blooms and human caused injury. Recently another challenge has surfaced for the sea lion that has scientists both puzzled and alarmed: an unprecedented number of strandings.
The strandings have occurred at a rate three times higher than the historic average and prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to take the extraordinary step of declaring an Unusual Mortality Event for California Sea Lions since the beginning of the year.
“Unfortunately, we expected NOAA’s announcement and we hope it brings even more attention to this critical situation. Peak stranding season hasn’t even arrived yet and it appears the number of pups that will show up on San Diego’s beaches will go up even more in the next two months,” said National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) Executive Director Dr. Cynthia Smith.
Since the beginning in January 2013, dramatically-elevated strandings of California sea lion pups have been observed in Southern California (Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties). NOAA reported that strandings are increasing in San Diego County. To date, strandings have totaled 1,100 sea lion pups in Southern California and 83 in the rest of the state.
NMMF researcher Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson is the chair of the working group for Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events. “We’re working quickly to respond to this crisis. The NMMF’s focus is to help save the lives of these malnourished sea lions and at the same time help our colleagues determine what’s causing this alarming increase in stranded pups,” said Dr. Venn-Watson.
What is causing the unprecedented number of strandings? In a recent briefing, Sarah Wilkin, NOAA Fisheries Southwest Regional Stranding Coordinator, said the origin is still unknown, but the agency is working with a number of hypothesis, including changing environmental conditions that limit prey availability, infectious disease, biotoxins and pollution. NOAA is assembling a multi-disciplinary investigation team to assess the causes and determine how to address.
In the meantime, the government agencies have partnered with a number of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation groups to assist with the strandings, but most are at capacity and the agency has also established a triage system to monitor pups on the beach, and transfer the most serious cases in need of medical care.
And are these sea lion strandings linked to the other unusual marine mammal activity that California has been experiencing over the last couple of years? Regular readers of my blog know I have been tracking these occurrences, and I was recently interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor on the phenomena. At this point, it’s too early to tell and more research is needed, but Wilkin replied in an interview that “It may be indicating that the ecosystem is changing slightly and the animals are responding to those changes.”
For ongoing updates and more information from NOAA on the sea lion strandings, visit NOAA’s briefing site.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY pages for more related news on this topic.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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