WIKIMEDIA, ORBITGALAs of late last week there appears to be no end in sight to a steady stream of sea lion pups that have been washing up on the coast of California, suffering from starvation. And researchers are struggling to determine what’s causing the mass strandings. More than 1,000 pups had already been taken to marine mammal rehabilitation facilities in the state by Thursday (April 4), according to Wired Science.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared it an “Unusual Mortality Event,” and teams of investigators are preparing to study the problem. Already, the event has produced more stranded sea lion pups than the yearly average.
Researchers will try to determine what exactly is causing the animals to starve, with the likely suspect being some environmental perturbation that is disturbing the sea lions’ food source, small fish that normally congregate offshore. Typically, warmer coastal waters will cause populations of anchovies and sardines to move or die off, but California waters have been cooler than average for a few years. But fish numbers have declined in recent years, and some scientists think that shifting ocean currents or other longer-term variations in atmospheric conditions could be to blame. “The timing of everything is really important,” Elliott Hazen, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Wired Science.