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Animal rescuers and advocates seek donations, volunteers to help sick sea lions

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The largest toxic algae bloom ever recorded off Southern California’s coast is continuing to sicken sea lions and other marine mammals, and it’s unclear how much longer it will last, one marine mammal specialist said Thursday, July 6.

More than 1,000 sea lions and dolphins have fallen ill and washed up along California’s coastline over the last several weeks.

John Warner, chief executive of Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles, which operates an animal hospital in San Pedro, said the hospital typically admits about 20 animals this time of year, but the facility has been at maximum capacity, having treated about 120 creatures since the second week of June.

  • In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill...

    In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill due to a significant algae bloom along the coast and a resting place has been designated for sick sea lions in Marina del Rey on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • L.A. City Councilmember Traci Park speaks at a press conference...

    L.A. City Councilmember Traci Park speaks at a press conference to address the recent sea lion crisis. In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill due to a significant algae bloom along the coast and a resting place has been designated for sick sea lions in Marina del Rey on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill...

    In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill due to a significant algae bloom along the coast and a resting place has been designated for sick sea lions in Marina del Rey on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • John Warner, president of the Marine Mammal Care Center, speaks...

    John Warner, president of the Marine Mammal Care Center, speaks at a press conference to address the recent sea lion crisis. In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill due to a significant algae bloom along the coast and a resting place has been designated for sick sea lions in Marina del Rey on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • John Warner, president of the Marine Mammal Care Center, speaks...

    John Warner, president of the Marine Mammal Care Center, speaks at a press conference to address the recent sea lion crisis. In recent weeks, dozens of sea lions have fallen ill due to a significant algae bloom along the coast and a resting place has been designated for sick sea lions in Marina del Rey on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Hundreds of marine mammals are being stranded weekly around L.A. County beaches, he said, and guessed that more than 100 animals have died, though he did not yet have a specific number.

With the animal hospital feeling the strain, Warner is urging individuals and organizations to donate or volunteer to help the animal rescue effort.

The animals have a 60% to 90% survival rate if they can be transferred to the hospital early enough for care and treatment, Warner said. But the demand for space at the hospital is too great – a predicament further complicated because rescue workers don’t want to release sea lions that have recovered into the ocean yet,  since the algae bloom is still present.

As a result, sea lions waiting to be admitted to the hospital are currently recuperating at a resting zone set up on Charlie’s Beach in Marina del Rey, a 50-by-50 square-foot fenced in area that protects them from human foot traffic. A full-time veterinarian is currently stationed there to care for the animals and make sure the sea lions are hydrated and receive fluids to wash out the toxins, Warner said.

The resting zone – located on a county beach – was set up in collaboration with city and county officials, said Warner, noting that it’s the first time a county has partnered with his organization on such an effort.

“They need fluids, they need rest, they need an environment that’s peaceful for them to be able to have a stress-free environment to reduce the seizures,” Warner said during Thursday’s news conference at Charlie’s Beach, the resting zone visible in the background.

The algae bloom causing marine mammals to get sick started at the end of May, with the first reports of mammals being affected in Los Angeles County in the first week of June, Warner said.

In recent weeks, sea lions have ended up on beaches in Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Palos Verdes and other locations in Orange County.

So far in L.A. County, sea lions have been the most impacted. Throughout Southern California, there have been reports of dolphins, whales and other marine mammals getting sick after feeding on smaller fish that have consumed organisms that feed on the toxic algae.

The toxins can result in seizures and brain inflammation and, in some cases, can cause irreversible brain damage, leading to death.

Warner said the algae bloom could not have occurred at a worse time – right when female sea lions are giving birth to pups on Channel Island. And he’s unsure how long the bloom will last.

“Normally we see these dissipate four to six weeks after they start,” he said of the algae bloom. “This one is still highly concentrated in the same area. It’s anyone’s guess at this point … whether it’s going to dissipate soon, projected to, or whether it’s going to travel south or north.”

Beachgoers are asked to leave alone the stranded animals that have washed up on the beach or that appear lethargic, and to contact the marine center or lifeguards. Experts warn the distressed animals could become aggressive.

L.A. City Councilmember Traci Park, who represents the city’s Westside, stressed during Thursday’s news conference that beach-goers who come across a stranded animal should give them space.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is for the public … to have some respect for them if they see them stranded on our local beaches and jetties,” Park said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of reports of people approaching the animals, trying to photograph them and even trying to pet them.”

As far as how the public can help, speakers at the press conference encouraged people to contact the Marine Mammal Care Center to volunteer or donate.

Warner said the organization has spent close to half a million dollars, which was not in its budget, to respond to the ongoing animal rescue effort. All of last year, the center went through about 100,000 pounds of fish to feed animals at the center. But by mid-June this year the center had gone through 150,000 pounds of fish — and had ordered another 100,000 pounds because of the increase in patients, Warner said.

Warner said he’d like to open another permanent hospital facility in future years.

There were eight sea lions resting on Charlie’s Beach on Thursday. The resting zone set up in response to the emergency meets current needs, but he worries that with climate change, such toxic algae blooms will become more frequent. His hope is to create a permanent hospital facility in the area, similar to what the center already has in San Pedro.

“These animals can recover if treated on time. What it requires is more capacity, a larger hospital facility and more personnel. It’s all a resource issue,” he said.

To report an injured or ill marine mammal, call the Marine Mammal Care Center hotline at 1-800-39-WHALE. To volunteer or donate, visit marinemammalcare.org.

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