Herring and Salmon Oil Smoothies
THE MARINE MAMMAL CENTER WHIPS UP NOURISHMENT FOR THE SENTINELS OF THE SEA
California’s Moss Beach is a small harbor town, unremarkable except for its wealth of wildlife. Due to deep canyons that fork through nearby shallow shelves of the Monterey Bay, the waters are fertile and fish abundant. In the breakwater between the bay and Elkhorn Slough, you can experience a safari of sea otters floating, seals and sea lions slipping by and squadrons of brown pelicans skimming past in their tight V regiment.
When forage fish like mackerel, sardines or anchovies pass by close to shore, there’s an ecstatic frenzy: humpback whales lunge feed, grey whales come for the bait balls and orcas speed in to hunt these gentle giants. Bottlenose dolphins surf the crests and shorebirds warp and weft from the skies to the sand.
But in 2015 water temperatures rose due to a confluence of El Niño weather conditions and already-warming seas associated with climate change. This caused a massive algal bloom that spread from Mexico all the way up to Alaska. The beaches of California were strewn with dead seals and sea lions, the emaciated corpses of adults and pups tangled in drift wood and seaweed.
While walking down the beach at Moss Landing one day that year, I came across a spotted gray and white harbor seal pup that seemed relatively healthy, but it was up past the tideline, so I feared it might be stranded. I waved to the people walking dogs on the beach to warn them to keep their pets away, then called The Marine Mammal Center. I was one of thousands who called The Marine Mammal Center’s hotline that year. The deaths and strandings were happening all up and down the California coast. 2015 was by far the Center’s busiest season on record. On average, they treat 600–800 sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals and other marine mammals a year. In 2015, they treated 1,800, and volunteers worked around the clock rescuing the critters, doing triage and making fish smoothies. The Center’s scientists and veterinarians also logged long hours trying to understand what was causing the crisis and what this should tell us about the health of the ocean overall.
The Marine Mammal Center has satellite facilities in Moss Landing, San Luis Obispo and on the Big Island of Hawai’i, but is headquartered in the Marin Headlands, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge on a former Nike missile silo. It was founded in 1975 by Lloyd Smalley, Paul Maxwell and Pat Arrigoni. A California sea lion named Herman was the first patient to be treated and released. Back then, the Center was a smattering of bathtubs and small pools with solar power and a chronic water shortage. It’s now a hub of veterinary training, scientific research, educational outreach and rehabilitation of not just pinnipeds like harbor seals, elephant seals and sea lions, but the Center’s staff scientists and volunteers also respond to whale entanglements and perform autopsies on beached dolphins and whales. Dr. Shawn Johnson, the Center’s head of veterinary science, explained why sea lions were especially impacted in 2015. “Sea lions live near shore, and eat sardines, herring, mackerel and anchovies. These fish graze on marine algae, which during that period contained large amounts of domoic acid. Domoic acid is a neurotoxin that attacks the brain and other receptors. Along with the domoic acid poisoning, there just weren’t enough sardines for new mothers and yearlings to eat that year.”
Sea lions are considered “sentinels of the sea” by The Marine Mammal Center. If they are showing up sick in significant numbers, that means that the ocean itself is toxic, and that’s bad news for everyone who eats from the marine-based food chain, including humans.
Johnson went on to explain that when the toxic algae dies, it sinks to the ocean floor and is then eaten by crabs and other shellfish. The delays and closures of the Dungeness crab fishery in our area in recent years were also due to unsafe levels of domoic acid.
After a huge influx of sea lions exhibiting seizures back in 1998, the Center identified the cause as domoic acid, the first time it had been found on the West Coast. The Center’s scientists informed the California Department of Health of their findings, prompting the agency to establish standards for domoic acid testing for consumer safety in seafood.
Dr. Claire Simeone, a conservation veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center, explained that domoic acid is not the only problem for marine mammals along the California coast. Nutrients from farm run-off also cause algal blooms and the degradation of wetlands and other natural filters allow land-based pathogens to run into the sea. There are land-based solutions for these problems, like fish-friendly growing that minimizes chemical use and erosion. There is a certification program for these practices in vineyards in California, as well as wetland restoration programs under way. These issues are certainly not unique to California, but The Marine Mammal Center in Marin is the only one of its kind, so veterinarians come from around the United States, and the world, to study how to treat these “canaries in a coal mine,” as Simeone refers to the marine mammals, and the warnings to take away from their illnesses.
Apart from overall ocean health research, the rescue and rehabilitation of the animals themselves are duties that the scientists and over 1,300 volunteers at The Marine Mammal Center take very seriously. And that means whipping up a whole lot of fish and fish oil smoothies. The animals are fed twice a day, with each animal receiving its own dietary and medical “prescription.” I could see from my several visits to the center that this requires a lot of time and effort, but is extremely rewarding when you see the animals steadily improving. For most, the goal is an eventual release back into the wild. For those determined unreleasable, the center finds appropriate homes.
A few months after I made that call back in 2015, I got a call from The Marine Mammal Center letting me know that the seal pup I had called about, which they had named Freddy, had been nursed back to health and released back into the ocean. It was one of the best phone calls I had ever received.
I was fortunate to be able to witness a release of rehabilitated animals near Chimney Rock, by the lighthouse in Pt. Reyes National Seashore, this past summer. There was an extra buzz among The Center staff and volunteers gathered that day, as three different species were being released. There were four California sea lions, a northern fur seal and three Guadalupe fur seals, a threatened species that often stays far out at sea. One of the attendees, Trina Baucom, explained that she started volunteering in 2015 when the Center was overwhelmed. “I helped in the kitchen, sorting fish, washing dishes and preparing the medicine and making fish smoothies.” Another volunteer, Margaret Keyes, started 13 years ago. “I’m fascinated that we as humans have been able to move from overhunting these animals to preserving them. And I’m passionate about the ocean,” she said.
If you follow The Marine Mammal Center on social media, which I highly recommend, they often show video of released seals and sea lions rushing towards the ocean with the exhilaration of running into the arms of a loved one. In real life, it’s more of a wander, but extremely gratifying to witness in person. Volunteers carried the huge cages to the beach, opened the doors and then used shields, gladiator style, to prevent the animals from heading in the wrong direction.
The sea lions took their time leaving, and then loitered on the beach. One rolled in the sand, another flopped down and napped, while the other two hung around and waited to bully the seals. The northern fur seal had to dodge the sea lions, which roared as the seal waddled by then headed straight into the water and began rolling somersaults.
They released the three Guadalupe fur seals last. About the size of sea otters, these seals have dense, luxurious fur that keeps them warm during their long journeys at sea. When released onto the beach, they meowed like angry cats, then made their way around the sea lions and into the water. Once in, they dove and bobbed like porpoises, free to go back to their watery depths.
For the volunteers and staff gathered, all the beach rescues, the fish smoothies, the cleaning of cages and hours of caring for injured, frightened animals were well worth moments like these.