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Encinitas lifeguards coming to the rescue of more sea lions

Local lifeguards aren’t just saving surfers and swimmers these days.

This year, there’s been a big spike in sea lion rescues in Encinitas, mirroring a trend that’s playing out across California.

“Every winter, we deal with this to one degree or another, but this year the numbers are up,” said Encinitas lifeguard Sgt. Robert Veria shortly after making a rescue the morning of Monday, Feb. 16, his 22nd rescue this year.

Thanks to Veria, a dehydrated and malnourished sea lion rested safely in a large rescue cage near the Moonlight Beach lifeguard tower. Moments earlier, the sea lion was stranded near a bluff just south of Grandview Beach.

“You can see the ribs poking out,” Veria said. “It should be double this size.”

A SeaWorld team picks up saved sea lions in the county and takes them to the park’s Animal Rescue Center. Over several weeks or even months, they’re revived and then released back into the wild with tags.

“It seems to be a very successful program,” Veria said. “I can say anecdotally I very, very rarely rescue a tagged animal.”

As of Feb. 16, Encinitas lifeguards have made 31 sea lion rescues, which they say is significantly higher than previous years.

And rescues are on the rise across the region.

In January 2015, SeaWorld took in 87 sea lions, more than four times the number during the same month in 2013. Later that year, the National Marine Fisheries Services declared an “unusual mortality event” due to so many sea lions washing up on shores.

The exact cause of the problem hasn’t been determined. Experts believe warmer-than-average ocean temperatures could be leading mother sea lions to travel greater distances for food, and hungry pups are left behind for too long.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has stated that sardine-spawning grounds shifted further offshore, a likely contributor.

“And while other prey were available — market squid and rockfish — these may not have provided adequate nutrition in the milk of sea lion mothers supporting pups or for newly weaned pups for foraging on their own,” NOAA’s website says.

NOAA has also found that disease probably isn’t the problem.

While California sea lions are struggling, their numbers have shot up over the past four decades. The passage of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and other legislation prevented them from being hunted to extinction.

The California sea lion population, which is found from Alaska to Mexico, is estimated at 300,000 today, according to NOAA.

Typically, rescues for Encinitas lifeguards subside in April or May.

Veria said most of the time, beachgoers will spot beached sea lions and report them to lifeguards. Because they can bite, it’s important to give them space, he added.

“Don’t try and handle it, don’t put water on it, don’t try and feed it a sandwich — just leave it alone and call the lifeguards,” Veria said.

He added that local lifeguards are better able to handle rescues this year, courtesy of a new rescue cage and trailer, which was donated by the nonprofit Surfing Madonna Oceans Project.

The nonprofit funds various ocean-related causes in Encinitas. It’s supported by proceeds from the annual Surfing Madonna 5K/10K.

Bob Nichols, president of the nonprofit and race director, said the group is pleased to see the rescue cage is helping, especially given the dramatic increase in the number of sick sea lions.

“It’s very spacious, well ventilated and allows for a much less traumatic rescue and transport for the sea lion,” Nichols said.

The large cage also allows lifeguards to transport elephant and harbor seals, which lifeguards rescue once in a while. The cost for the cage and trailer was about $6,200.

Nichols stated: “We’re thankful that the city of Encinitas, local community and lifeguards have asked for our help and that we can make a measurable impact in these mammals’ sustainability.”

David Koontz, communications director for SeaWorld, said once sea lions arrive at the SeaWorld Animal Rescue Center, they’re rehydrated with an IV. Then comes nourishment.

“Many of the animals are unable to eat whole fish when they arrive at the park, so we provide them nourishment initially by tube-feeding them a formula,” Koontz said. After a few days, they usually start eating whole fish.

“The hope is after several weeks in our care, medical treatment and being able to eat on a regular basis, that not only do they put on weight, but their general health improves,” Koontz said.

About 70 percent of rescued sea lions at the center are released back into the wild.

“Unfortunately, there is a percentage of the animals that when rescued are so ill or injured that they don’t respond to the medical care provided by our vets and animal care teams,” Koontz said.

He said some recover from injury or illness, but would not survive in the ocean. A permanent home is found for them at zoological facilities.

For the animals to return to the ocean, veterinarians must give the OK. And the sea lions have to demonstrate they can forage and compete for food with other sea lions that have been rescued.

“We will then start the planning to return them to the ocean,” Koontz said.


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