Spring is here and while flowers are visible on Ventura County hillsides, another, more lethal bloom is bringing sickness to birds and sea lions along the coast. Domoic acid is suspected, a byproduct of a certain type of algae and not an uncommon cause — but this year, officials say, has been particularly bad.
On a bright Saturday morning at the San Buenaventura State Beach, a pair of park officials using a large net gently captured a bird sitting near the popular bike path. Without a fight, the bird was brought in for rehabilitation, suspected of being a victim of domoic acid poisoning.
When a bird or sea lion eats a fish that has consumed a large concentration of the algae, the domoic acid enters the brain of the animal and can cause seizures, brain damage and even death. Since the beginning of April, beachgoers have reported numerous sightings of discombobulated sea lions and sickly birds, more so than is normal at this time of year.
The bloom consists of groups of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates that, when reproducing rapidly, results in millions of cells in each gallon of water, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The red tide appears regularly off the coast, but California State University, Channel Islands, Assistant Professor of Biology Allison Alvarado says that this algae bloom has been particularly bad for marine life. Reasons the algae grows to such an extent is as yet unknown, Alvarado says, suggesting one possible factor might be the wet winter runoff bringing excess nutrients to the ocean, which could feed the algae.
“It has been pretty intense,” said Alvarado, whose specialty is terrestrial birds. “It was like thousands of birds were being found, and I’m not sure how many marine mammals, but quite a few.”
Exact numbers are still being tallied, says Ashley Spratt, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Ventura. The outpost is charged with handling issues arising from endangered species, but because this algal bloom is occurring during the spring migratory months, the Wildlife Service is especially concerned.
“The majority of reports have included loons because they are currently migrating through the Santa Barbara channel on their spring migration,” said Spratt. Other animals currently being affected include grebes, cormorants, California brown pelicans and California sea lions. Spratt adds that the scope of the bloom will not be known for some time. “We’re in the analysis stage right now and that can take a couple weeks.”
Signs and symptoms of domoic acid poisoning are easily identifiable, says Spratt, and in animals can include “lethargy, their heads sway back and forth, foaming at the mouth, seizures, those are kind of what a person might see if they came across a bird or sea lion.”
Though domoic acid poisoning is suspected, the exact cause is not as yet determined since tests are ongoing.
Jenny Marek, senior wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Service in Ventura, says that the coast off Ventura seems to be a hot spot for most of the activity, though reports of unusual numbers of dead or sick animals along the coast stretch from as far north as Goleta and as far south as Malibu.
Marek says that citizen scientists alerted the Wildlife Service to the event when a monthly survey, dubbed the beachcombers program, found several loons on shore.
“We were seeing a lot of loons and that’s not one of the common species we see a whole lot of on our beaches,” said Marek. Loons primarily stay at sea, she says.
Capturing and rehabilitating the animals can be tricky and potentially dangerous for laypeople should they come across an animal and wish to provide assistance, says Marek.
“Once you get control of the head you can kind of scoop the body up and hold it like a football until you can get it into a crate,” said Marek, who advises that the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network will send experts to capture the animal for rehabilitation, if possible. “If you get [a loon] that’s not out of it, it can do some serious damage to a lay person trying to go up and get it. People have lost their eyes by being struck by a loon bill.”
On Friday, April 21, the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper began collecting samples of water from the channel from Santa Rosa Island to Tajiguas to the Santa Barbara coast, according to a post on the organization’s Instagram. Working in conjunction with University of California Santa Barbara researchers, the team is monitoring the “harmful algae bloom event” off the coast.
Beachgoers in Ventura are asked not to approach marine animals that appear in distress and to keep pets on leash.
To report a bird in distress: Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network: 805-681-1080
To report a marine mammal in distress: Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute (CIMWI): 805-567-1505, www.CIMWI.org.