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Researchers Continue To Investigate Animal Strandings On California Coast; Heavy Rainfall A Factor?

We’ve been seeing a spike in the number of sick, or dead sea birds and mammals along our coastline during the last few weeks. Researchers are trying to pinpoint the cause, but say the recent heavy rain may have been an unexpected contributing factor.

Ashley Spratt is with the Ventura office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is one of the agencies trying to solve the stranding mystery.  Spratt says they don’t have a good scope on the size of the stranding issue yet.

One possibility is the animals have been exposed to a natural phenomenon known as domoic acid poisoning. The acid is produced by algae. It accumulates in shellfish, sardines, and anchovies which are then eaten by sea birds and mammals. The toxin affects the brain and causes the animals to become lethargic, disoriented, and have seizures. It can make them extremely ill, or even lead to death.

Jeff Phillips is a Conservation Banking Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Ventura. Phillips says there’s another possible twist in all this. He says it’s possible that the strong rainfall season we’ve had was a major factor in the spike in seabird, and sea mammal strandings. He says the rain washed nutrients into the ocean which helped stoke the algae blooms, creating the domoic acid.

As investigators try to nail down the cause of the strandings, and rescue groups try to help the sick birds and mammals, there are words of caution about what to do if you encounter the sick creatures. Ashley Spratt, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says you should not approach them, but call for help, because they could bite.

Domoic acid poisoning isn’t the only potential cause of strandings in recent years along our coastline. Researchers say a lack of food has hurt sea lions during the last few years. Sardines and anchovies have moved further offshore, possible due to changes in ocean temperatures. Marine biologists sat the lack of food has hurt sea lion mothers, and pups, and led to a spike in strandings during the last four years.