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Marine mammal harassment on the rise; SLO County leads in severe cases

Malnourished elephant seal pup being rehabilitated at the Marine Mammal Center's office in Morro Bay.
Photo by Amanda Wernik.
Malnourished elephant seal pup being rehabilitated at the Marine Mammal Center's office in Morro Bay.

30% of all marine mammals rescued by the Marine Mammal Center experienced some form of harassment prior to their rescue. That's according to a recent report from the nonprofit.

The center is a nonprofit that rescues animals like seals, sea lions and otters in central and northern California. Its recent report highlighted San Luis Obispo County as the leader among other counties for cases of severe harassment, like touching or picking up marine mammals.

“This motivation to get close to experiencing wildlife, while on the surface sounds like an amazing thing to do, has serious repercussions for these animals that we’re responding to,” Marine Mammal Center Public Relations Manager Giancarlo Rulli said.

Hotspots for harassment in the Central Coast, as identified by the organization, include Morro Bay, San Simeon and Pismo Beach.

Shayla Zink, the operations coordinator with the Center’s Morro Bay office, explained that sick animals often come to shore, seeking refuge. However, close interactions with humans can cause them to retreat back into the water before rescue teams can help them.

“It is already a sick and debilitated animal, so added stress is just going to add stress for our rescue team,” Zink said.

Apart from San Luis Obispo County, cases of severe harassment decreased overall, but there was an increase in proximity harassment. This is when people get too close to animals, whether it’s to help them or to take photos.

“If you're not using your zoom on your cell phone camera, you're probably way too close,” Rulli said.

The Center advises people who encounter marine mammals on the beach to stand at least 150 feet away. From there, the Center recommends people call its rescue hotline.

According to Rulli, marine mammals, such as elephant seal pups. often come ashore malnourished because rising ocean temperatures from global warming are reducing their food supply, like squid.

“With climate change and with shifting food sources, that can cause a lot of our pups to struggle harder to find food when they first are on their own,” Rulli said.

Elephant Seal pups typically eat squid, but a study from the University of California, San Diego found that the mammals are traveling longer distances to feed themselves.

Also, other climate factors, like rising sea levels and king tide events, can separate seal pups from their mothers too early, leaving them struggling to fend for themselves.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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