A sick sea lion at the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay. (KSBY photo)
It's all hands on deck for the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay, where staff and volunteers received 13 calls for sick sea lions on Friday. The animals showed signs of domoic acid toxicosis, a dangerous brain-eating toxin.
In April, sea lions in Southern California were being infected with the toxin. Now, large numbers of mammals on the Central Coast are also suffering.
Gesturing to a sick sea lion being treated at the Marine Mammal Center facility in Morro Bay, Operations Manager Diana Kramer said this is the new normal for them. Rescues of larger sea lions started picking up in early July and skyrocketed this past Monday.
"It went from zero to 60 in just a day," said Kramer.
More than 30 sea lions have been taken in during the month of July. Approximately 80 percent of those rescues were at the Oceano Dunes and Pismo Beach.
Symptoms of infection from domoic acid toxicosis include confusion, head weaving, and seizures.
The toxin is naturally produced by algae and production increases during certain times of the year.
"What happens then is the fish or shellfish eat that algae," said Kramer. "It builds up in the fish and then your sea lions who live on fish, they eat these fish and it's such a high concentration it starts to affect them."
The center treats the mammals for one to three days before transferring them to a larger facility in Sausalito.
The key to bringing animals suffering from the toxin back to health is lots of fluids, which flush out any toxins in the body. Anti-seizure medicine is also used as needed.
Staff members at the Marine Mammal Center administer bags of fluid similar to a human IV, using a needle that goes just under the skin.
It can take two weeks to fully flush out the toxin and sometimes longer, depending on the animal's exposure.
The center has prepared for this for months.
"We've had a lot of back up stock of all of the medications and fluids that we need," Kramer said. "We're ready as we bring these in so we can get them the care that they need."
The Marine Mammal Center said they do not know where exactly the sea lions are ingesting the toxin. They are collaborating with other groups to study what causes the algae blooms to increase at certain times of the year versus others.
The center in Monterey is preparing for a surge in sick sea lions, as well.
The only way humans can get the toxin is if they eat a fish or shellfish that has the toxin, too.
The center relies on the public as their eyes and ears on the beach, so if you see a sea lion in distress, stay 50 feet away and call their hotline at (415) 289-7350.