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Beached sea lions affected by domoic acid

A California sea lion sits on the shore as a lifeguard urges spectators to keep their distance, July 4, 2015, Avila Beach, Calif. Beaches along the coast of California, to include Vandenberg’s shores, have recently experienced an increase in beached and disoriented sea lions. The strange behavior displayed by the sea lions is thought to likely be caused by a toxin, commonly found in shellfish, known as domoic acid. (Courtesy photo)

A California sea lion sits on the shore as a lifeguard urges spectators to keep their distance, July 4, 2015, Avila Beach, Calif. Beaches along the coast of California, to include Vandenberg’s shores, have recently experienced an increase in beached and disoriented sea lions. The strange behavior displayed by the sea lions is thought to likely be caused by a toxin, commonly found in shellfish, known as domoic acid. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Beaches along the coast of California, to include Vandenberg's shores, have recently experienced an increase in beached and disoriented sea lions.

The strange behavior displayed by the sea lions is thought to likely be caused by a toxin, commonly found in shellfish, known as domoic acid.

"Marine animals have been incapacitated, and sometimes killed by domoic acid poisoning," said Rhys Evans, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron biological scientist. "Toxins build up primarily in shellfish and small schooling fish, like sardines and anchovies. When a predator eats the contaminated fish, the toxins build up and harm the predator. Domoic acid causes neurological effects, most often swaying or head bobbing. Animals are often lethargic, but can quickly become aggressive when threatened or approached."

Due to the affected sea lions' unpredictable behavior, Wall Beach on Vandenberg has experienced two temporary closures in the month of July.

"Wall Beach is currently open, however we've recently had to shut it down temporarily for the safety of the public and for the safety of the animals as well," said Wayne Moses, 30th Security Forces Squadron conservation law enforcement lead.

Experts maintain approaching beached marine mammals is not only an unwise safety practice, but also violates federal law.

"Not only are they wild animals and carnivores with very sharp teeth, they can move much faster than one might expect. They are also protected by federal law under The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits humans from approaching a marine mammal within 50 yards," said Evans.

Although domoic acid has threatened the health of marine life, the dedicated members of the 30th Medical Group's Public Health flight are determined to prevent any threat to human welfare, and have established multiple safety procedures.

"The Public Health flight conducts bi-weekly mussel sampling in support of the California Department of Public Health Annual Mussel Quarantine," said Capt. Allison Bradford, 30th Medical Operations Squadron public health flight commander. "Mussels are collected at our beaches, here on Vandenberg, and submitted for testing to calculate the presence of the bio-toxin that causes domoic acid poisoning. Every year, from April through October, individuals are discouraged from consuming wild harvested shellfish from coastal California waters, as they may be contaminated and could cause domoic acid poisoning. Additionally, Public Health conducts daily disease surveillance and monitoring, and works closely with the clinical staff in primary care and space and missile medicine to ensure timely reporting and notification of diseases of any public health concern."

While the toxin can have detrimental consequences for marine mammals, if reported correctly, there is a chance of recovery.

"The best thing is to leave them alone and report them to the appropriate organization," said Evans. "When an animal can be easily captured, by well-trained and permitted individuals only, and rehabilitated in a facility where they receive a controlled diet and veterinary care, domoic acid is treatable and curable."

To report distressed marine mammal sightings on Vandenberg beaches, call 30th SFS fish and game, at 805-606-6804, or 606-3911.