An emaciated sea lion pup on the California coast. IN 2014 and 2015, hundreds of emaciated sea lion pups have turned up along the California coast in what could be one of the worst stranding events on record. Photo: NOAA

By Paul Shively
23 March 2015

(Pew Charitable Trusts) – Here on the West Coast, sea lions evoke plenty of emotions. Some people love them, while others see them as a nuisance. Whatever your view, it’s unsettling to see hundreds of emaciated sea lion pups turning up along the California coast in what could be one of the worst stranding events on record. Such a dramatic event points to something out of balance in our ocean.

Although scientists need time to definitively determine the cause, the lack of Pacific sardines is clearly not helping matters. Sardines and other small fish, commonly referred to as forage fish, make up a large part of the sea lion’s diet. But this isn’t just a sea lion problem. When forage fish dwindle, their absence reverberates throughout the food web, affecting seabirds, other marine mammals, and bigger fish such as salmon that many of us enjoy catching and eating.

That’s why it’s important to do everything we can to conserve forage fish in the ocean.

West Coast fishery managers recognized the importance of forage fish on March 10 when the Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously voted to prohibit fishing on dozens of forage fish species that aren’t yet being targeted. Council members deserve credit for acting with foresight.

However, one species of forage fish has been left behind in these protections: anchovies.

Anchovies are an important food for sea lions as well as other marine life. According to a 2013 scientific report by Pew, The State of the Science: Forage Fish in the California Current, anchovies’ wide distribution and year-round abundance make this forage fish species a highly important source of nutrition for more than 50 predator species. If you’re a fisherman, a bird-watcher, or simply someone who cares about a healthy Pacific marine environment, little fish such as anchovies are a big deal.

The most recent assessment of the central subpopulation of northern anchovies was completed in 1995, and a lot can change in two decades. When sardine populations decrease, scientists have generally seen that anchovies increase, but that does not appear to be happening now. [more]

Starving Pups: It's More Than a Sea Lion Problem

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