You wouldn't know it by glancing at docks in Newport and Astoria, nor from their activities at Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls, but that's the claim:
Marine conservation group Oceana says thousands of sea lion pups that have died on the West Coast this year are succumbing to starvation from a lack of forage fish.
Sardines - a preferred fish of sea lions - are more scarce than they have been in 15 years. Oceana is calling upon the Pacific Fishery Management Council to put a moratorium on new forage fisheries at its meeting next month. Wednesday, the group also urged the council to limit fishing when sardine numbers are low. "Excessive fishing during a naturally low productive period drives the population to a lower point" and makes it difficult to recover, a statement from the agency read.
Hate to break it to these preservationists, but sea lions eat all kinds of fish, and sardines aren't high up on the list because the animals expend more energy than they obtain when going after sardines. They also tend not to go after smelt, and for much the same reason.
Moreover, left unsaid by the alarmists is that the events are occurring in California - not the Pacific Northwest - and sardines don't seem to have anything to do with it. Sea lions, after all, being mammals, nurse their young; pups of this age are typically still on milk.
Sometimes weighing less than half of what they should, the tiny animals were showing up extremely early in the year, at a time when they should have been relaxing on their Channel Island nurseries and plumping up on mom's milk.
Put simply, something mysterious was causing the young sea lions to leave home long before they were ready. No other species were similarly affected, and even adult sea lions seemed fine.
It remains a mystery, although it's been occurring for three consecutive years now - all in California. One guess - although it is only a guess - is that current ocean conditions off California have depleted supplies of fatty fish (which, yes, include smelt and sardines) and thus force females to swim further in search of food. This, however, ignores the fact that sea lions are largely indiscriminate carnivores, and fails to explain why the adults all seem fine. Something else is driving the exodus, it seems.
It is entirely possible that the Marine Mammal Protection Act has been so successful that the animals are beginning to exceed their carrying capacity, as suggested in a NOAA report from a decade and a half ago:
NOAA Fisheries in 1999 reporting ‘rapidly growing populations’ of west coast Sea Lion and Harbor Seal population, will have a detrimental effect on their food supply in a decade or two.