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Warm El Niño Waters Leave Over 1,000 Sick, Starving Sea Lion Pups Stranded

MARIN HEADLANDS (CBS SF) -- California's sea lions are in trouble. More than 1,000 sick and starving pups have washed up on beaches so far this year. That's more than four times the normal amount.

The Marine Mammal Center, in the Marin Headlands, is where a new influx of struggling sea lions comes in everyday.

The Marine Mammal Center employees said they're taking in sick pups everyday and that this is the fourth bad season in a row for the California sea lions.

The Marine Mammal Center is in crisis mode.

The center is basically at capacity and having a difficult time fitting the animals into their pools.

Animals like School Daze, rescued by the Marine Mammal Center last week after it was found on Highway 37, are far too common.

Employees at the Marin Mammal Center said they get five to 10 new rescues like School Daze each day.

Most of them are found starving and emaciated.

The Marine Mammal Center is treating nearly 80 young sea lion pups and that's four times the average they normally see this time of year.

The malnourished mammals are fed up to four times a day and the younger ones are fed through a tube to help bring them back to health.

Right now scientists say the sea lion population is in danger.

In recent years, the sea lion birth rate has been declining and pup mortality rate is growing.

Dr. Shawn Johnson at the Marine Mammal Center said, "We're starting to get really concerned. If we continue to have increased pup mortality, year after year after year, the overall sea lion population will start declining rapidly."

Johnson said El Niño is partly to blame.

"In the last couple of years we've had extremely warm water off the California coast here that caused their prey fish to go farther north or farther out to sea. So the mothers were unable find enough food to feed their pups through nursing or provide milk for them," Johnson said.

The center also has more than double the normal number of elephant seal pups and four times as many harbor seals than typically seen this time of year, all also displaced by El Niño's warmer waters.

"Our biggest challenge is the cost of caring for all these animals. We're feeding 1,000 pounds of herring to them right now. That's 1,000 pounds of fish we have to purchase every single day," Johnson explained.

The good news is that while the Marine Mammal Center employees take in new rescues everyday, they also release healthy ones.

On Monday morning, scientists were able to return 10 sea lions back into the ocean.

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