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California and the West

Second Chances

Animals: Center rescues sea mammals found along Ventura County beaches. The creatures, starving and sick, are being nursed back to health.

January 19, 1998|LISA FERNANDEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — They washed ashore on Ventura County's beaches with last weekend's rain--19 seal and sea lion pups starving and sick from the famine that has struck the Channel Islands.

Deserted by their mothers--who are swimming farther and farther in a desperate search for food--the pups are being coddled by volunteers intent on nursing them back to health.

They gorge on Gatorade, fish shakes and occasional handfuls of sardines at San Pedro's Fort MacArthur Marine Mammal Center--with a smattering of medication for ailments such as pneumonia and shark bites.

"It's hard to sit there and watch something die on the beach," said director Jackie Ott, whose center handles sea animals stranded between Ventura County and Long Beach. "It's human nature to help. . . . I'm a scientist, but I'm also an animal person. My satisfaction is giving them another chance at life."

But scientists studying the El Nino-driven famine that has killed 6,500 pups on San Miguel Island off the Ventura County coast say rescue efforts often are futile.

"If Mum's abandoned the pups, the probability for survival is little," said Bob DeLong, one of the country's leading marine biologists, at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. "They've got no experience, and when you just fatten them up and send them back into an impoverished environment . . . well, it's a wasted rehabilitation effort."

"But I understand it," DeLong said. "It's the big, brown-eye syndrome. Cuteness definitely is a factor here."

Along the row of gated pens at the Fort MacArthur center, dozens of big brown eyes followed Ott as she walked with a pail of sardines.

The weaker pups are fed high-protein, high-calorie concoctions through tubes, along with Gatorade to combat dehydration. The stronger animals eat whole fish.

As Ott waved a sardine before one young sea lion, a tube-fed pup in the next pen responded.

"We have an eater," Ott called to a volunteer. "Switch him to whole fish."

"Who is it?" the volunteer asked.

"Twenty-two," she answered, pointing to the pup with the corresponding number shaved onto its left hip. "22 needs a half pound of smelt."

Then, turning to the recuperating 22, she cooed words of encouragement: "You might just get to live with No. 12 over there if you keep eating so well."

Most of the pups and older yearlings recently brought to the center are suffering from malnutrition. Many are sick with secondary illnesses.

The healthier animals--who are nearly ready to be released into the Pacific Ocean--stay in Pen 6, where they swim, play and "compete" for top-grade smelt and sardines--at 75 cents a pound--in a 13,000-gallon pool. The sicker ones remain quarantined and must be hand-fed.

The center has 50 marine mammals, 19 of them rescued along the Ventura County coast last weekend.

The majority of California's pinnipeds breed on the Channel Islands. The most heavily populated spot is San Miguel Island, 50 miles off the Ventura coast.

This year, El Nino's warming of the ocean is causing food shortages for California sea lions and northern fur seals living on coastal islands.

Mothers must spend longer periods away from their young to hunt for sardines, squid, herring and anchovies, which are finding refuge in colder, deeper waters.

Since June, at least 4,500 California sea lions and 2,000 northern fur seals have died on San Miguel Island, mostly from starvation, according to preliminary statistics compiled by DeLong's agency. Scientists assume that there are several thousand more dead animals on the islands up and down the coast, but they don't track the numbers there.

DeLong's group estimates that almost the entire pup populations of both mammal groups born in June will die by year's end.

Many pups--if they don't starve to death while being weaned from weakened, energy-sapped mothers--face the danger of being washed off the islands and caught in the currents.

When stranded animals reach the beach, many are taken to the Fort MacArthur center. Those found north of Ventura County are shipped to the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center.

DeLong said yearlings have a better chance at survival than pups because they are older and know how to swim and hunt for food.

But, he said, he does not actively support rescue efforts of animal populations that are not endangered, such as California sea lions and northern fur seals. He estimated that there are 85,000 to 180,000 California sea lions, and a million northern fur seals in U.S. waters.

DeLong said people should spend their money instead on bringing back endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seals and northern Pacific steller seals, populations that are suffering because of human disruption.

"Understandably, people respond as they do," he said. "It's just not entirely appropriate."

Ott said the primary mission of the Fort MacArthur Marine Mammal Center is to help animals damaged because of human activity: wounds from gunshots, gill nets and boat propellers. But the center's volunteers try to help any animal they can.

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