- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Dolphins and sea lions that have died along the Southern California coast in recent weeks may be victims of a deadly neurotoxin produced by a seasonal algae bloom, experts said Tuesday.

The same poison was found in samples from millions of fish that suffocated in a Redondo Beach harbor last month, and researchers hope to determine if it is present in samples from a similar but smaller fish die-off Monday in Ventura Harbor.

Experts don’t believe the fish died from the toxin but some marine mammals have become its victims.

In the past few days, three sea lions and three dolphins that beached themselves in Orange County died or were destroyed because they had incurable domoic acid poisoning, said Kirsten Sedlick, animal care supervisor for the Pacific Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

On Tuesday, the center dispatched crews to rescue another four dolphins and a sea lion, she said. Tests will determine whether they also were victims of the neurotoxin.

“We just have all of our crews on high-alert” and extra volunteer teams are out, said Melissa Sciacca, the center’s director of development.

Domoic acid is produced naturally, but levels often soar in the spring with the blooming of a certain species of algae off the California coast. At least one bloom was spotted in the past few weeks off the Southern California coast.

Mussels and small fish eat the algae and concentrate the poison, then are eaten in turn by pelicans and sea mammals.

Since April 3, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has received reports of about 40 sea lions and 17 dolphins with domoic acid poisoning symptoms.

Most were off Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The outbreak was still relatively mild but it was too early to tell whether it might become more serious, said Joe Cordaro, an NOAA wildlife biologist.

“You never know how bad they’re going to be, and we still don’t know what the factors are that cause these major blooms,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s (storm) runoff, we don’t know if its high temperatures … there’s just so many factors.”

In 2002 and 2003, domoic acid poisoning was blamed for sickening or killing more than a thousand sea lions and 50 dolphins in Southern California.

Sick marine animals often beach themselves, Sedlick said.

“What we are seeing is all adult sea lions,” she added. “They are pregnant … they are engorging themselves on those fish that have ingested this (algae).”

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