A temporary marine mammal “resting zone” has been set up in Marina Del Rey to address the impact of the largest toxic algae bloom ever recorded off Central and Southern California’s coast.

Sea life specialists and volunteers from the Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC) are working tirelessly inside a makeshift 50 by 50-square-foot fenced area near the shoreline at Charlie Beach. Officials report that there are currently eight sea lions suffering from domoic acid poisoning, which is a neurotoxin produced by the bloom of toxic marine algae called Pseudo-nitzschia australis. The toxin can cause seizures and heart failure by attacking the brain and heart.

At a press-conference held on Thursday afternoon, Councilwoman Traci Park was joined by Los Angeles city, county and wildlife officials including John Warner, CEO of MMCC and Gary Jones, Director of Department of Beaches & Harbors to discuss the marine mammal crisis.

“We’ve seen [marine mammal] events that have been really bad in the past, but nothing quite like this,” Warner told the Current. “It’s a rare occurrence to see a neurological toxin where the symptoms are very severe and you see these animals in absolute distress all over the beaches where they normally don’t haul out because of them being so populated. This is a very new phenomenon.”

According to Warner, it all started at the end of May when wildlife officials at MMCC began seeing the effects of the toxins on marine life. By the end of June, the San Pedro-based organization was at maximum capacity with 120 “marine mammal patients,” which is 100 more than the center treats in a year. Warner said that within a two week period, they received over 1000 calls from locals reporting marine mammals in distress.

The sea lions are disproportionately affected by the neurotoxin as they regularly consume large quantities of shellfish as well as small fish, which eat the deadly algae. The heart and brain damage is in direct proportion to the amount of infected fish the mammals consume.

A full-time veterinarian is currently delivering treatment that consists of seizure medication as well as supplying fluids to the sea lions in effort to wash out the toxins. In addition, the sea lions are isolated from human contact in order to provide them with a restful “stress-free environment.”

According to Warner, immediate treatment can, within the span of 72 hours, prevent further brain issues such as memory loss. While algae blooms have been known to last from 4-8 weeks in the past, Warner said the MMCC is currently awaiting a status update on future blooms from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with the hopes that the worst has passed.

Park raised concerns over recent reports of local beachgoers approaching, petting and taking photos alongside the sea lions.

Marine Mammal Care Center’s sea lion resting zone at Charlie Beach in Marina Del Rey. “I cannot stress enough how important it is for the public to be aware of what’s happening with these animals and to have some respect for them if they see them stranded on your local beaches and jetties,” Park said. “If people do see a sick or stranded animal, it’s important to keep a safe distance.”

Warner, Park and Jones delivered a call to action requesting volunteers to aid in the rescue as well as donations that will go towards the assembly of more resources including paying off $500,000 of unforeseen rescue costs.

“We need people to volunteer to help identify stranded animals, to help educate the public about what’s happening and help us keep these animals safe while they rest and recover,” Park said.

Warner and Jones praised Park and city officials for rallying the community and thanked the “wonderful neighbors” for volunteering.

“I’ve never seen the government act so fast and responsive in my entire life,” Warner told the Current. “While the wheels of government tend to churn very slow, this has been amazing. It’s very clear that people in Southern California love their ocean, beaches and their creatures that are a sense of joy for all of us.”

Magnolia Lafleur

Special to the Daily Press