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More Than 1,000 Sea Lion Pups Washed Ashore In California, 'Unusual Mortality Event' Declared [VIDEO]

Apr 09, 2013 11:10 AM EDT

Reports of dead or nearly dead lions washing up on California's shores continue to mount, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare an "unusual mortality event" for the animals.

The new status will secure funding and establish a panel of experts to investigate why so many sea lions are washing up on California's beaches.

Last month, Nature World News reported more than 500 sea lion pups were found washed ashore and on the verge of death in Southern California. Less than a month later, the number of pups found beached in the region has more than doubled.

Scientists and animal experts are still trying to understand why this is happening.

Los Angeles County has seen the greatest extent of the phenomenon. Between 2008 and 2012 an average of 48 sea lions were found stranded, but alive in the country each year. As of March 24, Los Angeles County has already had 395 beached sea lions. Among the seaside counties from Santa Barbara to San Diego the number of live sea lion strandings is three times higher than the historical average.

Recovered sea lions were consistently found to be young- about 9 months old-showing signs of dehydration and in general being very underweight for their age.

When reports of unusually high numbers of sea lions washing ashore began to surface earlier this year, experts were correct in their predictions.

"We anticipate it will only get worse in the coming months," said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Fisheries Service in an interview with Wired last month.

The mass strandings suggest something is awry in the waters, as sea lions are often studied as a gauge of the marine ecosystem.

"Sea lions are usually pretty good at adapting," Melin said. "If the system starts changing or becomes out of whack, they're the one that are going to show the signs."

According to San Diego's local NBC affiliate, researchers suspect a lack of food is the reason for the strandings. Theories suggesting that radiation from the Fukushima incident could be a factor are being dismissed for now.

"Radiation is being looked at, just like everything else. We haven't ruled it out, but we really don't suspect this at all," Jim Milbury of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service told NBC 7. "We don't suspect radiation because this would also mean other animals in the ocean would be affected, especially in the oceans of Hawaii, closer to Japan, and we haven't seen any of that."

Milbury said starvation is more likely a cause for the strandings, which he confirmed numbered 1,100 in California's southern coastal counties in the first three months of the year. The historical average for the same time period is 131.

"For some unknown reason that we're still researching, their food prey has moved to another location in the ocean and the sea lion pups can't get to it," he said.

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