Baby sea lions usually tend toward pleasantly plump, but the ones washing up by the hundreds on California’s beaches this year are all skin and bones. This is the third year in a row that animal rescue groups have scrambled to save record numbers of sick, starving pups—onEarth first reported on the heartbreaking phenomenon back in August 2013—and matters seem to be getting worse. In 2015 alone, there have already been more than 1,450 cases. And it’s only March.
Why are so many sea lion pups starving? The evidence points to the usual reason we can’t have nice things: climate change.
The Channel Islands, off the Southern California coast, are usually surrounded by an abundant supply of fish, making them a great spot for sea lions to breed and raise their young. But unusually warm waters are driving their prey farther away. When mothers stay out hunting for too long, desperately hungry pups try to strike out on their own—but they’re too weak and inexperienced to make it very far.
Experts say the environment is changing too rapidly for the sea lions to keep up, and they’re worried about how warming ocean temperatures will affect populations in the long term. But for now, overburdened rescuers are taking it one day—and one herring smoothie—at a time.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.