Carrie Schuman, SAN LUIS OBISPO TRIBUNE
A 2012 overview of trends in toxic algae along the West Coast — published in the journal Harmful Algae — notes a body of evidence suggesting toxic blooms off of California have been worsening in the past 10 to 15 years. A 2018 study published in the same journal further identifies Southern California as a domoic acid hotspot.
On a beautiful Friday in July, a dehydrated young sea lion was rescued from the Harford Pier by the Marine Mammal Center’s San Luis Obispo County rescue team.
Pier visitors noticed the curious sea lion had been lounging on a floating dock for a suspiciously long time.
This California sea lion, later dubbed “Landing,” represents one of the hundreds the center cares for every year, including a large number suffering poisoning from an algal toxin called domoic acid.
Dr. Cara Field, one of the center’s veterinarians, said this year is especially alarming because the algal blooms responsible for producing domoic acid have started earlier than usual — just in time to target “adult female sea lions making their way to the Channel Islands to give birth” and “a whole second generation” of unborn sea lion pups.
The source of domoic acid — a potent neurotoxin — is a microscopic plant-like organism called phytoplankton.
When one particular species called Pseudo-nitzschia finds just the right sweet spot of conditions, it can rapidly reproduce and form a “ bloom.”
People unfortunate enough to be exposed to domoic acid by eating tainted shellfish can develop amnesic shellfish poisoning. Severe cases of the condition, as described by the California Poison Control Network website, includes “short-term memory loss, seizures, coma or shock” — although these cases are rare thanks to precautions taken by the state Department of Public Health.
Marine mammals are also susceptible to poisoning but don’t have a warning system in place like we do.