An unusual number of marine animals have been found sick or dead, washed up on the beaches of Santa Monica Bay in recent weeks. Kirsten James, a staff scientist at Heal the Bay, told the Mirror that they had been “getting a lot of calls in the last few weeks about an excessive number of sea birds and other marine life” affected. She noted that the reports had escalated since the Earth Day beach clean-up on Saturday, April 21.
Peter Wallerstein, president and founder of the Whale Rescue Team, cautioned the public to stay away from such animals – they are wild animals and more dangerous when they are sick. “Sea lions have a bite 10 times greater than a Doberman,” he said. Call the lifeguards or Whale Rescue Team at 800.39.WHALE.
A sea lion was rescued on Friday morning, April 27, near lifeguard tower No. 28 by the Venice/Santa Monica boundary, according to Wallerstein. The sea lion was alive and being cared for at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.
Wallerstein said that he did not know if the number of animals affected is higher than in previous years, but that the “intensity and potency of the bloom” is extraordinary this year.
The “bloom” of which Wallerstein speaks is domoic acid poisoning – a naturally occurring toxin produced by microscopic algae, explained Heal the Bay’s James. Although the phenomenon – sometimes (not always accurately) called “red tide” – appears to be seasonal and related to the warming of the ocean, scientists are not completely certain as to what causes the outbreak of the toxin.
Human activities contributing to climate change or excessive nutrients flowing to the ocean (i.e., agricultural runoff) may contribute, or non-human events like changing ocean currents may be the cause. “Or it could be a combination of these factors,” said James. “This year has been particularly bad,” she added.
Dave Finley of the Santa Monica Harbor Patrol which operates off of the Pier said that various marine animals had been affected in Santa Monica Bay including sea lions, dolphins and birds, and that the Harbor Patrol calls in Wallerstein when animals are discovered. Jose Bacallao, senior aquarist at Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, said that while the Aquarium itself is not doing collecting, selecting or rescuing activities, he has noticed this year’s impact on marine animals. While out for a dive, he said, he found 26 dead cormorants on a 75-to-100 yard stretch of beach at Point Dume – certainly “more than usual” for this time of year.
(“Animals” is used in this article in the broad sense of the kingdom Animalia, as in “animal, vegetable or mineral,” rather than the more limiting sense of “mammal.”)
The domoic acid toxin attacks the brain and disturbs its natural function. Lauren Palmer, a veterinarian with Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, said that this year’s bloom is affecting more species – pelicans, sea lions and dolphins, among others – and goes beyond the adult females most commonly affected in years past to all ages.
Regarding domoic acid, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary says, “Possible reasons to explain this expansion include natural mechanisms of species dispersal (currents and tides) to a host of human-related phenomena such as nutrient enrichment (agricultural run-off), climactic shifts or transport of algal species via ship ballast water.