SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — After a social media post showed a deceased dolphin at Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara, several other sightings were also listed.

Public comments report deceased dolphins, sea lions or seals in areas such as Padaro Beach, Haskells and along the Rincon.

No official cause of death has been released by marine mammal experts.

The Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) has been receiving calls since mid-May.

Volunteers who live in the area are responding to check on the animals and see if they can be rescued at the Gaviota Coastal Rehabilitation Center.

Southern California scientists are sampling harmful algae, and the numbers were high in the channel recently.

That was a warning sign.

In the beginning, there were a few calls, about one a day. That has escalated to over 100 a day, often for the same animals.

Reports of deceased or sick marine mammals are becoming overwhelming for the organization.

“We are now up to 14-15 (sea lions) a day and 14 dolphins in the last five days in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties,” said Sam Dover, chief veterinarian at CIMMI.

Decisions have to be made on the spot, but the chances of saving the animal’s life from this disease are said to be low.

Beach visitor Trevor Wilkinson helped with a rescue at the western end of Hendry Beach on Tuesday. It was a fight that required five people. He said: “that poor man didn’t want to enter the loading area. We don’t have the possibility to explain to him that we are here to help him”.

Seeing the sea lion’s behavior, Wilkinson said, “You can tell he’s already disoriented, unable to concentrate. The poor fellow is scared.” He was assisted by his son who helped with the transport case.

There were other sick sea lions on the nearby beach in areas marked out by rescue teams to keep the public out.

Some were on the move and may be returning to the ocean, but timing is of the essence to save their lives.

Ken Hughes is a Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute volunteer. He said, “They can clear the toxin from their body within 24 to 72 hours. If we can reach out to them and get fluids in them and other treatments, we feel it helps them.”

Hughes showed the rescued sea lion to some students on a field trip before the mammal was chased away. “I feel we need to involve young children so they can see nature and when they go to school they can study it.”

Marine life affected by algae blooms and toxins has been significant since last week.
Hughes said calls are coming in all day and he’s been carrying out rescues since 7am. He said there were “20 different animals on the beach”.

Hughes said dolphins are very difficult to save. “We try to answer them if we can, but by the time we get there they’ve already passed.”

Common dolphins and coastal bottlenose dolphins are found in our local waters. This toxic bloom only affects common dolphins based on their feeding patterns.

For more information go to: CIMWI.

What is Domoic Acid?

Domoic acid (DA) is often referred to as Red Tide and is produced from a natural algal bloom. Domoic acid is a neurotoxin (toxin poisonous to nerve tissue) produced by phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants), specifically a microscopic diatom (algae) in the ocean called Pseudonitzschia australis.

The contaminated seaweed does not directly affect the organisms that consume it which are filter feeders including small fish (anchovies and sardines), molluscs (crabs and prawns) and bivalves (clams, mussels and oysters).

Crustaceans and other small fish consume the toxic algae when it’s in bloom and it builds up in their bodies.

California sea lions and other marine mammals as well as seabirds are affected by the accumulated toxin when they eat prey items such as anchovies and sardines that have fed on the algae during toxin-producing algal blooms.

Diagnosis depends on detection of venom in the serum, urine, or feces of affected animals, along with detection of Pseudo-nitzschia australis in the environment and prey on affected sea lions.

What effect does domoic acid have on sea lions?

The visual signs of a sea lion suffering from domoic acid toxicosis include disorientation, head bobbing back and forth, foaming at the mouth, bulging eyes, involuntary muscle spasms, inability to get out of the ocean, numbness, seizures, and even death.

This neurotoxin causes brain injury and hippocampal shrinkage which is mainly associated with long-term memory and spatial navigation. Damage to the hippocampus can lead to memory loss and difficulty establishing new memories, as well as learning and storing new information. The degree to which domoic acid affects sea lions depends on the amount of contaminated fish they consume.

Symptoms of acute AD typically subside after 72 hours as the toxin is eliminated from the body in the urine. Rescuing and transporting animals suffering from domoic acid poisoning adds an extra element of stress and can adversely affect the animals’ immediate health and survival.

Sometimes, animals find themselves in a place or situation where it’s not safe for volunteers to rescue them. More skilled and experienced volunteers with the proper equipment and a transport truck are needed to rescue these adult California sea lions which can weigh more than 180 pounds.

For animals on domoic acid rehabilitation, supportive care treatment includes flushing the toxin from the animal’s body with subcutaneous fluids, administering antiepileptic drugs, and feeding uncontaminated sea lion fish.

There is no known cure for domoic acid. In many cases, sea lions with AD can recover, feed and survive in the wild.

This particular algal bloom of Pseudonitzschia australis it seems much stronger than CIMWI has ever experienced and is attacking our sea lions more intensely.

For more information or to make a donation go to: Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) or call (805) 567-1505.

CIWMI 501(c)(3) is a non-profit organization that relies on donations and grants funding to survive and serve the community of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. CIMWI does not receive any municipal or provincial funding to support its work.

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