Big Things Come from Small Beginnings: The Mystery of the Sick Sea Lions

Photo: A malnourished sea lion pup awaits rescue; Sean Gloster/Marine Photo Bank
A sea lion pup sits at the water’s edge. Sean Gloster/Marine Photo Bank


On a cold, foggy morning along the Malibu coast, a small brown lump emerges from the sea and waddles ashore. I spot it from 100 yards away, but already my dog, Cooper, is at a full run toward the baby sea lion. I scream at him to stop, but it’s too late: The thin, frightened sea lion pup is heading back into the ocean. I finally catch up to Coop and pull him back, and we watch as the pup swims out through the waves. Though Cooper hadn’t touched him, the timid pup was easily threatened; animal lovers with cameras approaching other pups have been met with the same result. They don’t know that the cute but frighteningly thin sea lion pups are coming ashore because they are starving to death. But I do. We’ve rescued dozens of pups off our beach in the last month. I curse at myself for not having Cooper on a leash. I hope this one makes it safely back to shore—or, better yet, gets lucky and finds food.

Our Code Blue Foundation and many others contributed to fund an additional rescue facility at the California Wildlife Center. This spring the rescue facilities up and down the coast of California were filled to capacity with sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals. More than 1,300 pups came ashore this year desperate for help, more than eight times more than last year, and almost three times the previous record year of 2009!

So what the heck is going on?

I’ve read several articles, which all allude to the sea lions’ food source–forage fish such as herring, anchovies, and sardines–“mysteriously” disappearing. But is there really a mystery? The forage fishery in California is a big industry. Could it be that the valuable market for these fish, too low on the food chain for our dinner, but a popular source of food for livestock, fish farms, fertilizer, and even those omega 3’s the doctor told you to take, could be over-fished?

“A presumed food shortage is leaving last year’s baby sea lions in bad shape; as mothers spend more time foraging for fish, pups wean themselves early and set out on their own, before they’re strong enough to find their own food. Starving and exhausted, they seek refuge along the state’s beaches. At this point, scientists still don’t know what that cause is, and a food shortage still seems like the most plausible culprit. This isn’t an El Niño year, and the pattern doesn’t resemble what scientists would expect to see if an environmental toxin or infectious disease were to blame.”–Nadia Drake, Wired

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The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., took in 45 malnourished sea lion pups (including those pictured here), seven harbor seals, 12 elephant seals and two fur seals from centers in southern California that were overcrowded and needed more room to accommodate incoming patients. Ingrid Overgard/The Marine Mammal Center

Although the forage fishery in California claims to be one of the best managed in the country, if not the world, that estimation is based solely on the catch they have consistently been able to get–in fisheries jargon, “maximum sustainable yield.” But this measurement does not consider the ramifications for the ecosystem, nor the predators that depend on these fish as their only food source. Just last year the Fish and Game Commission recognized this oversight and revised its policy. Based on the recommendations from the Lenfest Forage Fish Report, the new policy takes into account the “effects of fishing on forage species’ dependant predators, and the availability of alternative prey.” With the Pacific sardine fishery currently on its way to collapse, much like it did in 1945, dropping 33 percent from last year and in decline for six years, the Pacific Fisheries Council just adopted similar language for their management of forage fish.

But for this year’s sea lions, it may be too little too late.

On March 25, 2013, NOAA officially declared a Federal “Unusual Mortality Event” (UME) and formed a team of researchers to investigate. NOAA Fisheries, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and the Working Group for Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events are investigating the food shortage hypotheses, comparing the abundance of forage fish and the correlation to sea lion weight. This data will also help us to better manage for other forage-dependant predatory species such as harbor seals and sea birds.

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A starving sea lion pup in need of rescue. Kaelee Schoenneman/Marine Photo Bank

“These sea lions might be our sentinel that tells us something else is going on that’s going to be affecting other fish, that’s going to be affecting sharks, that could have much broader concerns throughout the ocean.”–Sarah Wilkins of National Marine Fisheries Service, in an interview with NPR

If we can understand the factors that have created this immediate issue, we may be able to better manage ocean resources in the future. However, this crisis begs the bigger philosophical question of whether or not a wild ecosystem is something that can be, or should be, “managed” by humans. Do we really need to be fishing out hundreds of thousands of metric tons of wild menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay, krill from the Antarctic, and sardines and squid from the California Pacific just to get Omega 3’s or feed pigs? As a lynchpin for the whole ecosystem, these fish have much more value left alive in the ocean than they do dead as fertilizer on a corn crop. Most of these wild-caught forage fish, ironically, end up feeding farmed fish–and starving their wild counterparts! (It takes 7 pounds of sardines to grow one pound of pen-raised tuna.) Climate change has made it even more difficult to predict when and where these fish will be. Without that consistency, it’s virtually impossible to “manage” an ever-changing ocean ecosystem.

Given the limitations on our ability to effectively manage the ocean, it would be prudent to adopt a more cautious strategy in regards to wild forage fish, assuring there is enough for dependant wildlife. We have other sources of Omega 3’s and fertilizer, but marine animals and sea birds rely solely on what they can find in the wild ocean. Since forage fish abundance is already highly variable and sensitive to the environmental changes that we are certain to experience in the future, it will be increasingly difficult for wild predators to find a meal–and nearly impossible for man to know the true impact of commercial fishing on the ecosystem. Considering this year’s radical upsurge in mortality of sea lions in California, the assumption many scientists are making is that we are taking more forage fish than we should.

An Elephant Seal at the Marine Mammal Center Photo: Kip Evans

Just as healthy plump sea lions and seals are being returned to California’s wild ocean, US policy makers and scientist are meeting with governments around the world to decide the fate of another important forage fish, krill, in Antarctica. July 15 and 16th the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), meets to decide whether or not to protect one of the last remaining healthy ocean ecosystems, The Ross Sea. The most productive stretch of water in the Southern Ocean it is home to whales, penguins, seals, fish, sea birds, and abundant with the food they need to sustain them, mainly krill.
“The Southern Ocean is of major importance, given its wealth of biodiversity, including fish that can live in waters below zero degrees (Celsius, 32 degrees Fahrenheit),” said Robert Calcagno, director of the Monaco Oceanographic Institute”It is also connected to the world’s ocean current system, and has massive stocks of krill,” he said, referring to the tiny shrimp that is a vital protein source for whales, penguins and seals.

Commercial fishing interests are already extracting over 4,000 million tons of krill and 3,000 tons of Antarctic Toothfish (sold as Chilean Sea Bass) from the Southern Ocean each year. Against the advise of scientists studying the region, some fishing interests would like to scale up operations to meet demand. If approved by CCAMLAR this week, The Ross Sea protection would create a 2.75 million square mile wild ocean sanctuary continuing to provide refuge and food for threatened marine life.

Big things do indeed come from small beginnings, forage fish are the corner stone of marine ecosystems, from whales to seabirds, marine wildlife depends on abundant small schooling fish to survive. For little “Sharp Scissors” and the other rehabilitated pups in California returning to the ocean, I hope they find enough nourishment to keep them there.

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Sea lion pup “Sharp Scissors” returns to the Ocean at Point Reyes National Seashore on May 24, 2013, after rehabilitation and medical care at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. Jim Oswald/The Marine Mammal Center




  1. darynne jessler
    July 31, 2013, 5:28 pm

    Humans are greedy and there are too many humans. An overpopulation of greedy humans is the root cause of every environmental problem. Period.

  2. Paul Shively
    Portland, OR
    July 26, 2013, 6:18 pm

    Thank you for such a sad but important article. As an avid angler and sea lion enthusiast it is important to point out how sea lions can serve as an indicator of our oceans’ health. If sea lions can’t find forage fish for needed sustenance, it is likely predator species of fish like salmon and tuna may suffer the same fate. Right now, many species of forage fish on the West Coast are unmanaged and vulnerable to industrial-scale fisheries starting up with no catch limits and no protections of any kind. Sea lion advocates and fishermen can find common ground when it comes to asking fishery managers to take a precautionary approach when it comes to forage fish protection. Whether it is a marine mammal, sea bird or a tasty fish for my dinner table, these little forage fish are a big deal.

  3. Norma Campbell
    July 21, 2013, 11:52 pm

    We do not need to use the Krill which feeds so many sea creatures. We do not need to grind up forage fish and use as fertilizer. We do not always need to take away from other species which have no choice in what they must eat.

  4. S Campbell
    July 19, 2013, 6:58 pm

    I am glad to hear that forage fish are getting more adequate attention, and I appreciate that Fish and Game and the Pacific Fisheries Mgmt Council have recognized the need to adjust catch limits. To John S – Top predators signal to us the health or lack thereof in an ecosystem. Nature has ways far more complex than we can know to manage populations. Please be constructive in your comments, and save personal assaults for your own blog.

  5. Shari Sant Plummer
    July 19, 2013, 7:58 am

    Dear John. Smith,
    Thanks for your illuminating comments. While the population of sea lions has grown steadily since the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, and there have been “natural ” population fluctuations during that time, this years stranding is off the charts, even in comparison to other “Unusual Mortality Events”. A UME is defined as: “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.”
    NOAA apparently doesn’t think this is a normal response to overpopulation, nor is it time to “manage” sea lions (just how would one do that?) therefore they have assembled a team of scientists to investigate what could be affecting the sea lions food source.

  6. L Kulpit
    bay area
    July 18, 2013, 5:27 pm

    RE; John Smith.
    There’s always a natural cycle of life and death but if this were the case you’d see animals of all ages dying. The only ones sick and starving are pups therefore your theory does not apply.

  7. Sylvia Earle
    July 18, 2013, 12:48 pm

    Thanks for putting the spotlight on a critical issue, important not just for California sea lions, but for the ocean as a whole — and therefore the interests of people everywhere. Your message is well researched, based on solid science coupled with insights derived from years of personal observations. Short term profits for a few are destabilizing the entire system, with great costs to all of us — not just sea lions. No one knew 50 years ago that fishing for the ocean’s “middlemen” — krill, anchovies, herring, and other low-on-the-food chain grazers — could destabilize the entire system. But the evidence is now clear, and policies for protection of these small by vitally important animals should follow.

  8. John Smith
    July 18, 2013, 1:47 am


    Article is severely lacking in any discussion of the sea lion population explosion. Even if forage fish were not harvested you are going to have the same result eventually- which is the sea lion population reaching its carrying capacity!

    Sea lions have been protected since 1972, they have been multiplying like rabbits out there the past two decades, and mortality we are seeing is entirely natural result of “survival of the fittest” and simply an over abundance of sea lions.

    I am baffled your article only looked at one side of the equation, which was the harvesting of forage fish, and not the other side which is the greater wrong— unmanaged sea lion population.

    How can you be so ignorant to not realize nature works in cycles of abundance and dearth. This happens NATURALLY. We do not need to rehabilitate sea lions that are starving, it is part of NATURE. The whole rehabilitation program is so frickin out of whack- rehab sea lions in order for them to go back out and die – the fundamental problems is not a lack of sardines and squid, it is nature has produced too many sea lions! This is basic biology I am amazed you can write for Nat Geo and not understand this. The lynx and hare oscillation model??? high school biology.

    Go back to ralph lauren and design pretty clothes, we need intelligent people writing on scientific issues not ditzes from NYC.

  9. Valerie
    July 17, 2013, 8:08 am

    l’homme me rend malade ,jamais satisfait , l’argent le met a neant ,sa perdition , c’est son future .