CAPISTRANO BEACH, Calif., March 13 (UPI) -- Some scientists believe climate change is having a major impact on the planet. Others believe the effects are more moderate. But one thing seems certain -- it's creating serious life-or-death consequences for young sea lions off the California coast, animal experts say.
So far this year, about 1,500 sea lion pups have come ashore in the Golden State -- from San Francisco to San Diego -- most of them tired, starving, confused, and some of them barely clinging to life. And the chief cause, scientists seem to agree, is global warming.
Warmer ocean water is driving fish farther from coastlines, which forces the pups' mothers to trek farther than normal to find food. And sometimes the mothers are gone so long, their young begin to believe they've been abandoned and do the only thing they can -- set out on their own, completely unprepared to support themselves or find their own nourishment. And in many of those cases, the New York Times reported, they wash up on California shores.
Animal care experts say they've been inundated with calls recently from residents who have stumbled upon a young sea lion somewhere -- on their back porch, on the beach, and one even curled up in a flowerpot. And by the time experts reach some of the exhausted animals, their chances of survival hover between slim and none.
"They come ashore because if they didn't, they would drown," said Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at Marine Mammal Center near San Francisco. "They're just bones and skin. They're really on the brink of death."
When many pups set out on their own, scientists say they have not sufficiently been nursed or trained by their mothers to hunt -- which is an integral part of sea lions' development that allows the animals to survive, and ultimately reproduce.
But those that reach California shores aren't necessarily yet out of harm's way, scientists say. Once on land, the young pups face an entirely new set of dangers -- from dogs to various poisons, and even to humans trying to help.
Often, humans who find the stranded sea lion pups try to care for them and inadvertently make things worse -- sometimes by dousing them with fresh water or taking them back to the ocean, animal care experts say. What the pups need is specialized care, but advocates say the demand far exceeds the care available.
"There are so many calls, we just can't respond to them all," said Justin Viezbicke, who oversees stranding issues in California for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The reality is, we just can't get to these animals."
Sometimes, in fact, there are so many pups in need and so many places to go, rescuers say they can't get to some of them immediately.
"We're doing everything we can to take in as many patients as we can," Peter Wallerstein, president of Marine Animal Rescue based in Playa Del Rey, told NBC Los Angeles. "We have doubled our rescues and there seems to be no end in sight."
SeaWorld San Diego announced last week that it suspended its sea lion and otter shows so that several of its animal care experts can help with the growing crisis. Volunteers and staff at other rescue organizations are also stepping up efforts to meet the need.
This is the third in five years scientists have seen such a large number of sea lion pups coming ashore, the Times reportedd. Of the nearly 1,500 that have washed ashore so far this year, scientists say about half of them are receiving treatment. After a few weeks, they will be rehabilitated enough to be released back into the ocean.
Scientists say it may be too early to determine how the animal's recent struggles might affect its population, which they say now stands around 300,000. But one thing is for sure -- the changing environment, influenced at least partly by climate change, poses a new set of challenges for the Pacific sea lions.
"The environment is changing too rapidly," biologist Sharon Melin said. "Their life history is so much slower that it's not keeping up."