National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials on Friday warned the public to be vigilant and watch out for sick and dying sea lions and dolphins as people make plans to hit beaches along Southern California’s shoreline over the long Fourth of July holiday weekend.
A toxic algae bloom has been sickening the marine animals that feed on the plankton or other creatures that eat the algae causing them to be poisoned with domoic acid. Estimates are more than 1,000 sea lions, including 100 dolphins, have been affected, with many coming ashore.
The poisonous blooms have been spreading down the coast of California from San Luis Obispo County for the last month – a combination of cold upwellings deep offshore and increasing temperatures are creating a sort of perfect storm that, over time, turns the common plankton into something toxic.
Experts, who gathered in a discussion with media outlets on Friday, June 30, said they don’t know when the bloom will subside, but warn that it could also spread further north, affecting the Pacific Ocean off the entire state.
The bloom’s impact is the most severe experts have seen in a specific geographic region, they said, and marine mammal rescue centers are at capacity, including in San Pedro and Laguna Beach. Because of a lack of space, some animals may have to be left on the beaches, officials warned.
“People will probably encounter a sick or dead animal on the beaches this weekend,” said Justin Viezbicke, marine mammal stranding coordinator with NOAA Fisheries. “Give them as much room as possible; some will be experiencing seizures. We’ve seen these animals get aggressive. If you see them in the water, you may want to move away. While animals are lying on the beach, they have a better chance if we give them room and some time.”
The toxins can cause seizures and severe brain inflammation and often leads to death by causing irreversible brain damage.
In Los Angeles County, an area near Venice Beach has been cordoned off as a resting spot for the sea lions, an option that John Warner, CEO of the Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles in San Pedro, said he floated out to county officials earlier this week as the facility filled up despite creating triage pens in its parking lot.
The cordoned off beach has been set up with kiddie pools filled with fresh water and misters to help the animals cool off. In some cases, Warner said, very sick animals have made a turn around just because they were given time to rest undisturbed.
As of Friday, the San Pedro center had 120 animals it was caring for in-house, including six newborn pups, Warner said.
Earlier this week, there were reports of a sea lion acting aggressively at two of Dana Point’s most popular beaches, Strands and Salt Creek. The water off the two beaches was closed for two days.
Officials warned more aggressive animals could be seen, and Warner and Viezbicke both said there had been at least 20 reports of such incidents in Los Angeles County.
Vanessa Zubkousky, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Public Health, said that while domoic acid is not a risk to humans through water contact, she advised, “If you see a bloom, don’t enter the water.”
Domoic acid can cause shellfish poisoning and Zubkousky said some elevated toxins have been found in mussels, clams and scallops. She advised people against eating any if they were recreationally fished. Commercial products, such as what a restaurant will serve, should not be impacted because the shellfish are regularly inspected.
The health agency is also testing crabs for the toxin. Zubkousky said the best way to minimize issues when eating a recreationally caught crab is to remove the guts and rinse the shell before eating.
In the meantime, rescue centers are scrambling to keep up with demand.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center has responded to reports of 63 animals in the last two weeks, including five dolphins, said Dr. Alissa Deming. Thirty-seven sea lions were at the Laguna Beach facility on Friday receiving treatment and staffers and volunteers were building extra pens to house more animals as the bloom is expected to worsen over the weekend, Deming said.
“We may get to the point where we have close our visitor yard if necessary to create more space,” she said.
At the San Pedro center, Dr. Lauren Palmer and her veterinarian staff are treating the sea lions as quickly as possible. Since there is no antidote to the poison, the treatment relies on anti-seizure medication and fluids to flush out the toxins.
“A lot of the animals are coming up on the beaches in really bad shape,” Warner said. “Some have to be euthanized because there can be no positive outcome. Ending the suffering is the most humane thing to do.”
Warner also worries about all the Fourth of July fireworks in the days ahead. Animals suffering from a neurotoxin will be even more at risk of being affected, he said, and four days of bangs will make their recovery even more difficult.