Hungry and sick sea lions are wandering ashore in Southern California in record numbers, filling up rescue centers in what experts said could be one of the worst years in memory for the mammals.
Back in 2013, the number of malnourished seals was so high the National Marine Fisheries Service declared an "Unusual Mortality Event," but experts said this year could be worse.
"We're getting twice as many this year than we did then," said Raymond Simanavicius, marketing and development manager for the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.
Rehabilitation centers and wildlife organizations are often called by residents and beachgoers when seals are spotted wandering far from the water. Many of the young seals are malnourished, seeking food or rest.
The Marine Mammal Care Center takes in the pups and other injured or sick marine animals and cares for them until they can be released in the wild. But the number of sick seals this year has kept their organization, and others through the coast, at full capacity.
So far this year, the organization has taken in 223 animals for the Los Angeles County coastline — about five times the usual number of patients, Simanavicius told BuzzFeed News.
"We're still taking them in, but we're lucky that we released 11 today," he said.
The center is currently holding 123 marine mammals for observation, and Simanavicius said they have asked rescuers to consider which animals can be left out for observation.
The problem appears to span across the Southern California coast.
Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which takes in animals from the Orange County coast, has seen 140 rescues so far this calendar year, said Kirsten Sedlick, animal care supervisor for the nonprofit.
During the same period last year, the organization had 12 rescues.
"We're extremely inundated with sea lion pups," Sedlick said.
The center is has not reached capacity of caring for about 125 animals at any one time, but it is currently housing 96 marine mammals.
"We're definitely trying to do what we can, and trying to triage differently," Sedlick said.
California Wildlife, which performs marine mammal rescues in the area, warned callers of "extreme high call volume" in a recording, and stated animals may not be tended to the day they are spotted, the Los Angeles Times reported.
When residents of a Marina del Rey apartment complex called about a wandering seal, it took two days for rescuers to take the pup away.
Residents told KABC-TV they reached out to officials repeatedly, but were told they were at capacity.
Meanwhile, the young seal wandered through the building, into the parking lot, and residents named him "Walter."
"We can only bring in three a day, which leaves animals like this alone for a day or so, and then we have to go back and get them, so our hands are tied," Peter Wallerstein of Marine Animal Rescue told the news channel.
Other rescue centers are also facing a surge of calls.
"They are very busy right now," Mary Beth Steen, director of development for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, told BuzzFeed News.
The nonprofit organization rescues, treats, and releases injured and sick marine animals back into the wild.
"It's pretty much making history," she said.
Walter was reportedly recovering at the center.
The number of rescues has surged so quickly, organizations such as the Marine Mammal Care Center have quickly used up their budget and resources for the year, Simanavicius said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the reason why several pups were malnourished in 2013 might have been because sea lion mothers were unable to provide adequate milk for their pups.
But the exact reason why was unclear.
NOAA also notes young pups are often stranded in May or June when they begin to forage on their own.
With a large number of stranded pups reported already this year, officials worry it could be a difficult year for the animals. Harbor seals and other adult marine animals seem to also be affected, according to the Marine Mammal Care Center.
Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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