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A California sea lion pup pops its head out of the water of a pool at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. (IJ photo/Alan Dep) Alan Dep

About 30 malnourished California sea lion pups have arrived at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands for treatment from Southern California, where treatment centers have been overwhelmed by hundreds of the sick animals.

Since January, strandings of California sea lion pups have been high in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Sea lion strandings have intensified over the past few weeks and stand at about 900, nearly three times higher than the historical average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.

The agency has deemed the occurrence "an unusual morbidity event."

Marine mammal treatment hospitals have been

overwhelmed and the sickly marine mammals are now being sent north to Marin.

"It's not known with certainty why these sea lions are stranding so malnourished, but biologists' studies from last spring suggested that this year's supply of anchovies and sardines could be limited," said Jeff Boehm, executive director of the mammal center. "These two species of fish are an extremely important part of California sea lions' diets and females simply may not have been able to nurse their young sufficiently, resulting in abandonment, premature weaning and subsequent strandings."

Veterinary staff and volunteers at the center are providing medical care to the sick sea lions.

Including the transferred patients, the Marine Mammal Center


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now has 100 patients on site. The Southern California event coincides with harbor seal and elephant seal pupping season in Marin, which is heaviest from March to May. The center predicts that with the added sea lions from Southern California, the patient count could rise to as many as 200 at any one time, about double the normal load.

"Our priority is to always provide the best medical care for all of our patients and get them healthy and back out in the ocean," said Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the mammal center.

Johnson noted in 2009 the mammal center saw 1,704 marine mammals, more than double its average.

"We know what it's like to have large patient numbers here, and we'll employ what we learned in 2009," Johnson said.

Contact Mark Prado via email at mprado@marinij.com

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©2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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