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In Southern California, more than a thousand starving baby sea lions have been found on beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared the sea lion crisis an unusual mortality event. Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: It's early morning and Peter Wallerstein is on the job - a beach near Marina Del Rey. His white truck is a familiar sight along this coastline. Next to him, a small blonde dog named Pumpkin rides shotgun.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

PETER WALLERSTEIN: Marine Rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. I'm down here at the Fisherman's Wharf down in Cabrillo and there's this sea lion. And he's just laying there. He doesn't look good.

HILLARD: The phone rings every five minutes and it's always the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's a baby seal or sea lion down here that, like, still moves but he looks hurt...

HILLARD: Since the beginning of the year, Wallerstein, the 61 year old director of Marine Animal Rescue, has picked up more than 300 sick and dying California sea lion pups. In 27 years of doing this work he says he's never seen anything like it.

WALLERSTEIN: We wonder why there's no fish in the water, why the pups were born at such a low body weight. So they started out weak and cold and hungry and it hasn't got any better when they're already weaned by mom and trying to find food. They're not finding it.

HILLARD: For two days a baby sea lion has been stranded on a nearby dock. The people who made the call are relieved to see Wallerstein.

WALLERSTEIN: Just watch him. I'm going to get him. OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA LION BARKING)

WALLERSTEIN: Don't scare him.

HILLARD: He gently places a large fishing net over the pup. Normally, there would be some resistance, but this baby sea lion hardly moves. Wallerstein is asked the same question he hears more than a dozen times a day: Will it be OK?

WALLERSTEIN: I'm going to do the best I can for her.

HILLARD: His next stop is a crowded pier. After navigating a sea wall, Wallerstein carries another weak pup back to his truck and gently transfers it into a dog crate.

WALLERSTEIN: Come on, buddy. I've got to make sure I grab the right end. Look how skinny.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

WALLERSTEIN: See his spine?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

WALLERSTEIN: His ribs are showing.

SARAH WILKIN: To date, we're at 1,100 California sea lion admits for rehabilitation and the historical average for the same time period is 130.

HILLARD: Sarah Wilkin, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service says the main theory scientists are investigating is that the prey, the smaller fish these animals feed on, are just not available. The mystery is why?

WILKIN: These sea lions may be our sentinel that tells us something else is going on that's going to be affecting other fish that could have much broader concerns throughout the ocean.

HILLARD: It's late afternoon. There are six baby sea lions in the back of Wallerstein's truck. In recent weeks marine mammal centers that have been rehabilitating the pups have reached maximum capacity. He takes a deep breath and makes the call.

WALLERSTEIN: I have some animals. I want to see if anything is available inside the center.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, Peter. Yeah, hold on for one more minute, please.

WALLERSTEIN: Great. Thank you very much.

HILLARD: The center can only take the two most critical baby sea lions. So Wallerstein drives the others to a more secluded beach where he hopes they won't be bothered by people.

WALLERSTEIN: It breaks my heart to see these little skinny pups being left here. And you see they don't want to go into the water. I don't think they're going to make it on their own.

HILLARD: From the shore, people cheer when the young sea lions move toward the cold waves, but within minutes the weakened pups come back, trying to find warmth on the sand. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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