LAGUNA BEACH ( — A Southern California marine life rescue group has declared a state of emergency after witnessing an enormous increase in the number of gravely dehydrated and malnourished sea lion pups this season.

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The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, based in Laguna Beach, CA, rescued a dozen sea lions on Saturday. The number is a record for the nonprofit organization, according to Keith Matassa, the organization’s executive director.

“We have 88 animals in house. We haven’t seen these numbers in 15 years,” Matassa said. “1998 is the last time we had these numbers. Last Saturday we broke our record on rescues. Twelve rescues that day. We have brought in about 30 animals in the last five days. We were concerned earlier, now we are really concerned, because we thought it would slow down. But it hasn’t, and we are still not into the busy season.”

“It’s absolutely in crisis mode in our center, there are currently 88 marine mammals being treated there,” said head of development Melissa Sciacca, who added that all but two of them are sea lions.

“We haven’t had this number of animals in 15 years,” Sciacca said. “It was a particularly rainy ‘El Niño’ year in 1998.”

The center, who first started noticing an increase in sick sea lion pups in January, is in a dire state as funds and supplies are running low. Operations at the center rely on donations, which cover food, medicine, medical staff, and transportation to and from the beach. The center is the only non-profit organization in Orange County that is licensed to rescue and rehabilitate the animals.

Sciacca also says that most of the sea lion pups are coming ashore severely malnourished and dehydrated, and that the problem has reached “epidemic proportions” along the Orange County coast.

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The organization is currently discussing just what might be causing the widespread condition in the pups.

“There are a lot of ideas out there on what might be happening,” Sciacca shared. “Some of the ideas being discussed are [that] the mothers might be swimming further to forage for food. It’s also possible the mothers are not properly nourished and the pups are having to wean earlier.”

While the sea lions are tending to attract attention when they come ashore, Sciacca warned people not to approach them.

“If you see an animal on the beach, please don’t approach it,” Sciacca warned. “Do not chase that animal back into the water. They’re coming to the land for a reason.”

Domoic acid poisoning, which is caused by a naturally occurring algae bloom, does periodically sicken, and sometimes kill, sea lions, pelicans, and dolphins.

Anyone who discovers an ill sea mammal is urged to immediately call the Pacific Marine Mammal Center at (949) 494-3050 or notify a lifeguard. The center is also seeking donations or the purchase of food items to help with the cost of caring for the sick pups.

For more information on how you can provide aid for these pups and help the Pacific Marine Mammal Center manage this emergency, visit their website here.

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