California’s Central Coast is experiencing a devastating outbreak of dead dolphins and sea lions this summer. Large marine mammals are falling victim to neurotoxin-producing algae that is blooming off the coast and making its way through the food chain. This is causing a severe domoic acid toxicity, leading to disorientation, bulging eyes, muscle spasms, seizures, and even death.
The current outbreak is the worst ever seen, according to Sam Dover, the executive director of the Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute (CIMWI). Rescue workers are racing against the clock to save as many animals as possible, but the number of sick and dying creatures is overwhelming. CIMWI has received over 1,000 distress reports between June 8 and June 14 alone.
The cause of this outbreak is harmful algal bloom (HAB), which has occurred in Southern California in the past, but not to this extent. The algae responsible for producing the neurotoxin, called Pseudo-nitzschia, has been spreading rapidly this year. The warmer ocean temperatures caused by human impact are likely contributing to this phenomenon.
CIMWI has been working tirelessly to respond to the crisis. They have posted signs on beaches across the Central Coast, urging visitors not to approach sick animals. So far, they have treated over 500 live sea lions exhibiting signs of domoic acid toxicity and recovered over 150 dead sea lions in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
The toll on other marine life has been devastating as well. Over 30 live common dolphins have been stranded and quickly succumbed to the neurotoxin, with 110 dead dolphins reported. The numbers of stranded marine mammals suspected of domoic acid toxicity are rising by the hour.
Domoic acid is derived from an algae that is ingested by filter feeding fish like anchovies and sardines, which are then consumed by marine mammals. The toxin affects the brain and can result in seizures and death. Typical cases of domoic acid toxicity subside within 72 hours, but due to the massive bloom this year, infected creatures cannot recover on their own. Volunteer rescuers provide aggressive fluid therapy, anti-seizure medication, and anti-inflammatories to treat sick sea lions.
Despite these efforts, mortality rates among adult sea lions have been significant, and the sheer number of sick animals stranded on the beaches is overwhelming the rescuers. The situation is taking a toll on the rescue team both physically and emotionally. They are working tirelessly to help as many animals as possible, but the scale of the outbreak is too much for them to handle alone.
The reason behind the large algae bloom is not entirely clear, but scientists believe that the combination of record-breaking ocean temperatures and the nature of Pseudo-nitzschia, which lies low until conditions are just right for blooming, has contributed to its rapid spread. While the cause may be difficult to pinpoint, the consequences are undeniable and devastating.
In conclusion, the beaches of California’s Central Coast are currently grappling with a severe marine life crisis. The explosion of neurotoxin-producing algae is causing widespread domoic acid toxicity among dolphins and sea lions. Rescue workers and organizations like CIMWI are working tirelessly to save as many animals as possible, but the scale of the outbreak is overwhelming. The warming ocean temperatures and the nature of the algae bloom likely contributed to the severity of the situation.