As marine mammal care centers along the Southern California coast come up for air after two months of trying to rescue sea lions and dolphins sickened by a toxic algae bloom, their leaders warn the environmental and public safety emergency was a wake-up call for greater collaboration between nonprofits and local municipalities.
“What made this so bad, beyond the sick and dying animals, was that it was a public safety issue,” said John Warner, CEO of the Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles. “You had animals popping out of the water in front of thousands of people while seizing and giving birth. It was horrifying and really dangerous.”
This week, the care center celebrated the recovery and release of several sea lions rescued and treated for domoic acid, a neurological toxin, that poisons the animals after ingesting smaller fish that have feed off the toxic bloom.
Relief has come to the centers in recent days as staff at the MMCLA in San Pedro, the Pacific Marine Mammal Rescue Center in Laguna Beach and the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute in Santa Barbara County report that animals now found on Southern California beaches no longer seem to suffer from the neurological impairments that was sickening and killing them by the hundreds in June and July.
Toxin symptoms included seizures, premature births, disorientation and lethargy. Seizures and brain inflammation with domoic acid poisoning are often so severe that they lead to death by causing irreversible brain damage.
During the crisis, the largest number of animals were reported on beaches in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. As the bloom spread south, rescue calls ramped up in Los Angeles and Orange counties and finally spread into San Diego County, with SeaWorld San Diego reporting 18 sea lions now in treatment. Caring for the influx of animals – by flushing out toxins with fluids and giving seizure medication – pushed the centers to capacity and stretched the limits of their staff and volunteers, with many working 18-hour shifts, their officials said.
The San Pedro center created extra space in its parking lot; at the Laguna Beach center, its visitor yard was turned into a holding area.
MMCLA took in 120 live patients and responded to at least double that number. At least 100 animals on the beaches were documented as dead, Warner said. The mortality rate there was about 30%.
Forty-five sea lions remain in its care.
At PMMC in Laguna Beach, CEO Glenn Gray reported 120 rescues, including 104 sea lions and 11 dolphins; 47 animals were found dying or dead on the beach. PMMC has also started releasing patients and now has a remaining 19 animals in its care, including one elephant seal not suffering from the poison.
The spike in patients was not expected at this time of year. Warner said MMCLA spent nearly $500,000 treating the sick animals; at PMMC, Gray noted the rehab costs had reached $125,000.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate more than 1,000 sea lions and more than 100 dolphins were affected by the neurological toxin.
In one case, a dolphin found dead in Ventura County had among the highest toxicity levels ever recorded, said Clarissa Anderson, director of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System.
The bloom, which is believed to have been spread through poisoned anchovies, was first thought to have started far off the coast. But now Anderson, who has gotten test results back from algae samples taken nearshore that show toxins present off Santa Monica and Newport Beach, said she believes it could have been a combination.
“The hard part to know is were we seeing high amounts of domoic acid or was there a lot of anchovy feeding in just the right places,” Anderson said. “Now that we have toxin monitors, we know some were nearshore. And, we know we had really strong upwellings that pushed the bloom offshore. More likely, it was blown there and then circulated back to shore. At least for Santa Barbara and further south, we’ve stopped seeing upwelling in July.”
But, Anderson said, some of the same species found present in the Southern California bloom are now being spotted in high numbers further north, along the San Luis Obispo coastline, something not atypical for this time of year. Whether it will turn into a massive bloom is a question. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito has not reported any recent rescue of animals with toxic symptoms, though in June they did have 10 or so cases in Monterey County.
While toxic blooms occur regularly in the water, Anderson said, “It’s unclear when or where” the next one will happen. “This may or may not have to do with warming,” she said. In the meantime, she and other scientists will continue their studies and are concerned with more and larger events occurring.
NOAA officials have said this summer’s bloom is the “most severe they’ve seen in a geographic region.” And, before the Fourth of July holiday, pushed out a warning to the public to stay away from sick animals coming ashore. In several instances, beaches in Southern California were closed.
There were at least 30 reports of sea lions acting aggressively with swimmers and surfers.
The fact the spread of illness became so visible to the public, Anderson and Warner said, elevated the event to a “completely different level of awareness” and showed there needs to be a different level of collaboration in the future when rescuing the animals is no longer just the mission of the marine mammal centers. And, with the uncertainty of future events being worsened by climate change, officials say the network of marine mammal centers along California’s coast might need to rely on greater collaboration and help from their surrounding cities and counties.
“It’s not easy to manage with staff and volunteer resources,” Warner said, adding that the Southern California centers also received help from marine mammal organizations, including veterinarians and technicians, nationwide. “Our capacity, resources and personnel are not at a level to address this more frequently.”
Warner said he believes the solution could lie with greater involvement from local government officials and a public-private partnership. During the height of the recent sickness, with help from Los Angeles County’s Harbor Beaches and Parks Division, Warner was able to point out a swath of sand near Venice Beach that was set aside as a triage area in July. And, he said, he got help from varying public agencies.
But those relationships need to be formalized in the future and not just an emergency response, he said. “You can only call on people so often. We need a plan everyone is involved in and also make sure this event isn’t forgotten.”
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“In the heat of the emergency, I talked with the offices of two Los Angeles County supervisors, the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches & Harbors, and animal control and everyone agreed about having a playbook we can turn to,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by others, including PMMC’s Gray, who said, “If we’re not going to respond, the beaches will be littered with dead animals. We have to have collaboration.”
Local governments need to be involved so the brunt of a response is not shouldered by nonprofits relying on donations, Anderson added.
“If a nonprofit can’t get the money they need, they’ll need to get it from local governments,” she said. “You sometimes need extreme events before something happens. We’re often so reactive. We can’t only do what we need to do in the here and now; we have to think of what will happen in 2030, 2040 and 2050.”
“With the aggressive sea lions, it became a game-changer,” she added. “How do we engage municipalities in ways we haven’t thought of before?”