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Toxin likely to blame for sea lion, bird deaths

Ventura County Star - 4/20/2017

April 20--A flood of calls started over the weekend as beachgoers spotted sick or dying sea lions stranded on local beaches.

There had been a few in previous weeks -- one or two here or there.

"As of Friday, we started getting inundated. The floodgates opened," said Sam Dover, a veterinarian and executive director of the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, or CIMWI.

And, the nonprofit that rescues marine mammals stranded in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties wasn't alone.

Authorities say unusually high numbers of stranded or dead marine mammals and birds have shown up in spots throughout the Southern California coast in recent weeks.

Federal and state agencies are working to document the scope of affected wildlife and mortalities. Reports so far have included loons, grebes, cormorants, brown pelicans and sea lions.

Officials say they are investigating and tests are underway to determine the cause of illness and death and to rule out infectious disease. At least in some cases, domoic acid poisoning appeared to be the cause.

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin in the algae, which fish eat.

When the sea lions eat the fish, they become sick, suffer from seizures and brain damage and can die. Signs of the poisoning often include lethargy, swaying heads, seizures and foaming at the mouth, officials said.

The CIMWI hotline started getting about 100 calls on Friday and pretty much every day since, Dover said.

"Right now, we're averaging 30 animals on watch per day," he said.

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Along with sea lions, dolphins have been impacted, including two that died within minutes of stranding on Ventura County beaches Wednesday, he said.

In some cases, the rescue group won't remove the sea lion from the beach, because it can cause animals more stress and worsen their condition.

Volunteers are putting up stakes and signs near sick sea lions and trying to keep watch, particularly in crowded areas, Dover said.

Domoic acid poisoning is something he sees year after year, but not to the degree that's happening right now.

"This is the worst year we have ever seen," Dover said.

Beachgoers also have reported large numbers of dead and dying birds on local beaches, including a couple dozen at Surfer's Knoll near Ventura Harbor on Wednesday.

Click here for more information about domoic acid from state health officials

Authorities urge people to call to report the stranded or sick animals but also to stay away and give them space.

Getting too close not only can be dangerous for people and their pets but also can cause the sick animals undue stress.

Watch the animal from a safe distance of at least 100 yards, and do not touch or allow pets to get near the animals, they said.

Sick marine mammals often are agitated, disoriented and confused, which may make them especially dangerous.

Dover asked that those calling also understand that the agencies have been inundated.

"Someone will be there as soon as they can," he said.

Who to call

To report a live or dead marine mammal stranding, call Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute at 805-567-1505 in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties; or call the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 866-767-6114.

To report a bird in distress along Ventura and Santa Barbara beaches, call the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network at 805-681-1080.

For more information about domoic acid poisoning and bans on shellfish along the California coast, go to cdph.ca.gov.

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(c)2017 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 
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