SM PIER — Two sea lions washed onto the beach near the Santa Monica Pier Wednesday, victims of a deadly neurotoxin that has been wreaking havoc amongst the sea mammal population in Southern California.
The poison, called domoic acid, causes grand mal seizures, which lead to lesions in the victims’ brains.
It’s produced by algae blooms and siphoned out of the water by plankton-eating fish including sardines and anchovies, which are then eaten by the larger mammals.
The toxin then concentrates in the bodies of the larger animals until symptoms appear.
According to a release from Heal the Bay, it’s unclear where and how large the bloom is.
This year’s bloom is more intense than in previous years. Scientists don’t know much about what causes the higher concentration of toxin, just that pollution from agricultural and industrial uses feeds the algae.
The result has been dramatic.
Eighty-two large animals — including sea lions, dolphins and sea birds — have washed ashore in April alone, putting a major strain on rescue organizations striving to reach the creatures before their symptoms turn deadly.
Not only has the number of impacted animals gone up, the severity of their condition is worse than in previous years.
“It’s hard, we’re going 24-7 to rescue a lot of animals,” said Peter Wallerstein of the Marine Animal Rescue. The organization partners with Harbor Patrol, L.A. County lifeguards and local animal control agencies to help get the stricken animals off the beaches and into rehabilitation facilities.
Rescuers arrive on scene, evaluate the animals’ conditions and then try to get them into vehicles to transport to a center in San Pedro, where they can stay for several months.
“We get them in a safe environment and hydrate them to help flush the toxin out,” Wallerstein said. “With domoic, they aren’t even thinking about eating. You have to pump them with fluids.”
There’s no data on how successful these treatments are, or if the animals can go on to live good lives in the wild.
Heal the Bay volunteers reported the first of Wednesday’s two sea lions at approximately 9 a.m.
“There was a 150-pound female sea lion that was off into the shore area on the south side of the pier exhibiting different behavior,” said Vicki Wawerchak, director of the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.
Staff called the Marine Animal Rescue, and kept an eye on the sea lion until they arrived.
“They had four of them already in the truck, and they were picking up one more,” Wawerchak recalled.
The second sea lion floated up under the bridge near the pier later that afternoon.
Anna Corral, a psychic and tarot card reader on the pier, saw the animal and called Harbor Patrol at 2:50 p.m.
“It was young, but not a child,” Corral said. “It was already dead.”
Aside from the sick animals, the biggest problem in conducting rescues is the onlookers that flock to them.
“People are surrounding the dolphins, putting their children next to sea lions for photo opportunities because they think they’re friendly,” Wallerstein said. “They’re totally disoriented, wild animals, capable of inflicting a very serious bite. People must stay away.”
People sometimes believe that they are helping the animals by pushing them back into the ocean, Wallerstein said.
In reality, dry land is the only chance the animals have to survive, because a grand mal seizure in the water would lead to drowning.
That’s why it’s a $10,000 fine and up to a year in prison to push an animal back into the water, Wallerstein said.
Anyone that sees a stranded animal should call (800) 39-WHALE to reach the Marine Animal Rescue, or the local Harbor Patrol or lifeguards.