Marine mammal rehabilitators in California have been working overtime this year, trying to keep up with the abnormally high number of starving baby sea lions in need of care.

It’s normal for a certain number of emaciated sea lion pups to end up in rehabilitation centers, but this year’s numbers have blown past all previous records.

The Washington Post reported that an estimated 1,450 pups have been found stranded so far in 2015. To put that number into perspective, 250 strandings were recorded this January. In the last decade, the second most strandings for that month was 113. The lowest number of strandings for January was 16 in 2004 and 2006.

The strandings have gotten so bad and so numerous that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has warned residents that if they call with a sighting of a stranded pup, they might be waiting for while — although the mission of California’s largest marine mammal rehabilitation center, The Marine Mammal Center, is “to never turn a patient away.”

The sharp jump in numbers has left scientists searching for answers. The issue, they believe, is being caused by unusually warm water settling along the California coast. This warmer water lacks enough prey for the mothers to find to eat, so they are forced to travel away from their pups for longer in search of food during a crucial time when the pups need their mother’s milk to gain weight.

During a typical year, the mothers might leave their pups for two to four days and then return to nurse for a day or two. This year, researchers using satellite tagging have found that although the sea lions aren’t traveling beyond their normal feeding grounds, they are spending longer trying to locate adequate amounts of food. Rather than being left alone for two to four days, the pups are being left for up to a week at a time.

“As a result, young pups dependent on their mother’s milk to survive are not gaining weight and growing as they should at this time of year,” according to the NOAA website. “Some pups may even be venturing off on their own in search of food. They end up stranding on beaches, weak and emaciated, and may be picked up by members of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network.”

“These pups are not capable of being on their own,” said Sharon Melin from NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory. “They don’t have the skills to forage.” And, according to Melin, if the pups aren’t weaned by April, they generally don’t have a great chance of survival.

The Marine Mammal Center, which is taking in hundreds of these stranded pups notes that, on top of the warm water issue, overfishing and pollution could also be contributing to the lack of food in the area. The organization points to the 72 percent drop in sardine populations since 2006, a major food source for sea lions, as an example of how manmade environmental issues could be impacting the sea lion’s food source.

While the situation is dire, and sea lions face an uncertain future, The Marine Mammal Center and other rehabilitation facilities have already been able to treat and release a number of the pups. Check out this video of five sea lion pups returning to the wild. They were treated for malnutrition after stranding on beaches along the California coast.

Why are so many baby sea lions stranded in California?
Researchers think unusually warm waters might be the reason for stranded and starving pups.