Mammal Mystery Spurs Calif. Rescue Mission

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach is flooded with starving California sea lion pups.

Dean Gomersall is about to save another life.

"There he is right there," says Gomersall, pointing to a sick and stranded sea lion on the southern California coast.

The sea lion is lucky to be snared by Gomersall's net.

"Basically this animal would sit here starve to death and eventually die if it weren't for places like us," he says.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach is flooded with starving California sea lion pups, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. Many arrive emaciated with ribs showing through their skin. They should look be covered in blubber.

The sea lion rescued at the beach is nearly 20 pounds underweight.

"He's got ribs sticking out all over," says veterinarian Dr. Richard Evans.

The center has already rescued 172 sea lions this year - 139 percent more than last year.

It's the same story 400 miles north in San Francisco.

They've rescued a record 890 California sea lions. One ended up in a squad car after being found on the highway.

"A significant portion of our animals are so debilitated when they join us that we're just not able to rescue them or save them," says Jeff Boehm of the Marine Mammal Center

Why is this happening? Part of the problem could be overpopulation - a record 59,000 of these animals were born along the coast last year.

The California sea lion eats small fish like sardines and anchovies. Because there are so many of them competition for food is fierce and the concern is that it's going to get even worse because of a change in the weather offshore.

A growing El Nino weather pattern may be bringing warmer water currents to the California coast. Fish seek out colder water now further out in the ocean. That depletes the sea lion's food source near the shore.

"If this El Nino continues to develop and gets stronger and stronger...what we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg," says marine biologist Joe Cordaro.

Meanwhile, they are saving the ones they can. The weakest need feeding tubes and work back to eating whole fish.

Yet by the time they wear out their welcome... they are sent on their way.

"It's the best part of the job for sure," says one rescuer before letting sea lions back out to sea.

After a little hesitation, they're off - headed back home.