Channel Islands Marine Wildlife Institute strains to provide aid to marine mammals hammered by domoic acid poisoning
Hundreds of sick sea lions have been stranding on local beaches along with several in areas that were up to a mile from the beach, victims of a domoic acid crisis caused by a toxic algal bloom, according to the head of the Channel Islands Marine Wildlife Institute.
“It is a state of emergency for our local marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation nonprofit organization, Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute,” Ruth Dover, CIMWI co-founder and managing director, told the News-Press.
From Aug. 15 through Sept. 20, 37 consecutive days, “CIMWI has been inundated with reports of sick sea lions throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties,” she said. “Our local marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation nonprofit organization, Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI), has been on the front lines from sunrise to sunset helping these animals.”
Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin produced during harmful algal bloom (HAB) events by a certain type of algae, Pseudo-nitzschia australis, Ms. Dover said.
This neurotoxin accumulates in shellfish as well as small fish like sardines and anchovies. When sea lions and other marine mammals eat the contaminated fish, it can be harmful and even fatal when consumed in sufficient quantities, she said.
Visual signs of a sea lion suffering from domoic acid toxicosis include disorientation, loss of motor skills, head swaying back and forth, foaming at the mouth, bulging eyes, involuntary muscle spasms, inability to move out of the ocean, unresponsiveness, seizures and death.
This neurotoxin causes lesions in the brain and shrinking of the hippocampus, which is primarily associated with long-term memory and spatial navigation.
Domoic acid poisoning’s degree of effect depends on the amount of contaminated fish an animal consumes.
There is no cure for domoic acid. Treatment and supportive care includes subcutaneous fluids to flush out the toxin more quickly, anticonvulsant medication and uncontaminated fish.
This particular algal bloom was concentrated in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
“This strain was potent and much stronger than CIMWI has ever experienced,” Ms. Dover said. “CIMWI saw more acute symptoms and higher rates of mortality on the beaches and with animals receiving treatment and supportive care.”
The majority of the animals affected by this domoic acid crisis were adult female California sea lions weighing an average of 175 pounds. There have also been nine adult male California sea lions, two Northern fur seals and one long-beaked common dolphin that stranded with signs of domoic acid during this crisis.
“This has been a very difficult time for CIMWI’s all-volunteer team,” Ms. Dover said. “They gave their heart, time and skill to help these suffering animals and to provide education to beachgoers.”
From Aug. 15 through Sept. 20, CIMWI received 50-100 hotline calls a day, responding to 262 marine mammals suffering from domoic acid toxicosis. Some of these animals required multiple responses which resulted in 366 field responses. CIMWI volunteers rescued 77 marine mammals – 70 were suffering from the domoic acid toxin and seven had other illnesses/injuries
“CIMWI volunteers met this challenge with fortitude and extreme dedication to help these animals,” Ms. Dover said. “They may be a small nonprofit organization but they are mighty!”
Despite the gravity of the situation concerning these sea lions, there is now some light at the end of the tunnel with this domoic acid outbreak, Ms. Dover said.
She noted that recent forecasts by the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System that monitors harmful algal blooms show the bloom dissipating in our area.
“CIMWI volunteers are feeling a sense of relief, and they’re able to get some much needed sleep and self-care that they’ve missed out on during this state of emergency for the past five weeks,” Ms. Dover said.
Even while caring for sea lions suffering from domoic acid poisoning, CIMWI continued to care for other patients as well. This month, for example, they rescued two sea lions with trauma bite wounds consistent with the tooth size, shape and pattern of a killer whale.
CIMWI’s newest patient is #181, which is a 3- to 4-month old Northern fur seal pup. It was rescued on Friday at Hendry’s Beach because it was thin and weak.
This malnourished pup only weighs 10 pounds, which is a typical birth weight for these seals, indicating it recently weaned and hasn’t been successfully foraging for fish on his own.
“Number 181 has a feisty demeanor and is already eating small fish which are both good signs,” Ms. Dover said. (CIMWI gives their patients identification numbers instead of names because they are wild animals they intend to return to the wild. The nonprofit has rescued 181 marine mammals so far this year.)
Domoic acid is not a direct factor in his stranding, but there is the possibility that its mother was affected by domoic acid and unable to return for her pup, she said.
While not all algal blooms produce toxins like domoic acid which can affect the health of animals and humans, excessive algal growth can deplete oxygen and block sunlight vital for the survival of many aquatic species.
The increased frequency and biomagnification with these harmful algal blooms is posing a greater risk to marine life. Contributing factors to the proliferation of these blooms include climate change, eutrophication from fertilizers, agricultural and urban runoff, aquaculture activity, coastal development and prolonged warm water temperatures.
Global climate change is a risk to marine life. The warmer water temperatures are pushing the prey fish further off-shore and nursing seal and sea lion mothers are traveling further to forage, thus leaving their pups for longer periods of time. Nursing pups may be unintentionally abandoned and have a difficult time foraging for fish on their own, which can lead to starvation. The 2013-2016 California Sea Lion Unusual Mortality Event in California was a prime example of ecological factors causing prey shifts with grave impact on California sea lion pups and yearlings.
In addition, marine debris entanglement is a human-made threat to pinnipeds as well as large whales, which also can become entangled in fishing gear. Entanglement of large whales is a serious animal welfare and conservation problem that affects the animals and fishing industry.
The CIMWI facility is located at the historic Vista Del Mar Union School campus on the Gaviota coast in Santa Barbara County. The group’s core work is the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, injured, malnourished, orphaned, entangled and oiled marine mammals.
CIMWI is the only organization in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties authorized by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to respond to live and dead pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), live and dead sea turtles and live cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) as well as rehabilitate live pinnipeds and triage live cetaceans and sea turtles.
Its jurisdiction encompasses 155 miles of coastline (from the San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara County line south to the Ventura/Los Angeles County line), 106 beaches and four harbors. CIMWI has been serving Ventura County since June 2006 and Santa Barbara County since June 2015.
For more information, visit the CIMWI website at www.CIMWI.org.
– CIMWI is looking for dedicated long-term volunteers. Volunteers must be 18 years old and commit to a full-day on the same day each week. CIMWI’s volunteer application is online @ http://cimwi.org/ways-to-help/volunteer/
– Financial contributions enable CIMWI to run their daily operations and advance their mission. To learn about how to make a donation, go to http://cimwi.org/ways-to-help/donate/
– How to help a stranded marine mammal: http://cimwi.org/how-to-help-a-stranded-marine-mammal/. CIMWI Hotline is 805-567-1505.
Many people don’t know that marine mammals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and it is illegal for people to touch, feed, harass or move the animal into or out of the water.