Nearly 300 starving or stranded sea lions rescued off O.C. this year, care center honored...
LAGUNA BEACH - Nearly 300 sea lions beached along Orange County’s coastline were rescued, rehabilitated and released back to the Pacific Ocean this year, thanks to staff and volunteers at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
This was the third year of mass sea lion strandings along the California coastline that scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say is due to a warming ocean and lack of food for these marine mammals birthed by the thousands each year on the Channel Island rookeries. The mass strandings were declared an “unusual mortality event” by federal officials.
The Laguna Beach center, an institution established in Laguna Canyon in 1971, has been front and center in the fight to save the starving and dehydrated animals, taking in 1,465 since 2012 when conditions in the ocean began changing.
On Saturday, artists from Art-A-Fair, another Laguna Beach institution, celebrated the marine center’s success and pledged their commitment to raising awareness of sea lion strandings by dedicating a new sculpture.
Seamore, a painted fiberglass sea lion, was placed next to Murphy, a bronze sea lion sculpture at the entrance to the center. City officials, artists, and chamber representatives dedicated the piece – a collaboration of 15 artists from the 50 year-old art festival – in a ceremony. The ceremony was preceded by a parade along Laguna Canyon Road from Art-A-Fair to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
“For the Pacific Marine Mammal Center to be honored this way is amazing,” said Keith Matassa, executive director of the center. “To be recognized like this by a well-established art organization is an honor. This is another way people have recognized the plight of the sea lions and the ocean. As long as we bring the message forward, relieve the plight and re-establish the health of the ocean it’s great.”
LESSONS AND COLLABORATION
In 2015, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center took in 536 sea lions – a record. With resources already stretched from the year before, when 228 sea lions came in, center staff this year was bracing for what NOAA scientists thought could bring animals in at even a higher rate.
So far, 289 sea lions have been rescued. That’s more rescues than in 2014, but the pace of rescues has been slower than expected.
Still, Matassa said there have been other challenges. The center also took in other marine animals, such as elephant seals and harbor seals. Different species means the animals must be housed separately, a challenge for a small space.
“This year you saw a lack of food affect all the species,” he said. “They came in starving, dehydrated and heavy on parasites. It was everything we saw for past years just magnified among multiple species and age groups.
What has made this year a bit easier though was that Matassa, his staff and volunteers could take advantage of lessons learned from past years. They also took advantage of help from agencies across the country.
Similar to mutual aid responses among law enforcement and fire agencies, Matassa and the center are part of a network that work with officials from NOAA’s National Fisheries Service and its marine mammal stranding network.
That means weekly calls to check in on what was happening at other marine mammal rescue centers in San Diego, the Channel Islands and in Northern California. If help is needed at a center, trained staff is sent out. Standards of practice and resource management is set, with equipment and people with training in marine mammal sciences on the ready.
When more sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals began stranding in March, April and May and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center needed to open a triage center in Huntington Beach, Matassa had access to veterinarians and experienced staff through the mutual aid network called Special Trained Animal Response Teams, or START.
“It’s become streamlined with a collaboration of experienced people from across the country,” he said. “If we had that in 2013, when the masses started coming in, we would have been in a completely different place..”
There are currently 33 animals at the center – 29 sea lions, three elephant seals and one harbor seal. Releases are anticipated over the next few weeks, Matassa said. On average. the center releases about 65 percent to 75 percent of its patients. Some animals arrive with severe malnutrition and don’t survive.
Each animal that is treated at the center and released is tagged so marine mammal staff in Laguna Beach and others along the California coastline know the animal has been treated.
All released sea lions are monitored. Matassa and his staff go out of Dana Point Harbor to look for tagged animals and for those that have satellite GPS monitors attached as part of a NOAA monitoring program.
Three were released this year with satellite tags. Data from the device attached to the sea lion is monitored by Matassa and provides an indication of what the animals are doing in the wild.
He points to Buzzie, a sea lion released earlier this year. Data shows he’s been splitting his time between Dana Point Harbor, the coves in Laguna Beach and the Newport Beach Harbor.
“We’re seeing him on monitoring trips off Dana Point,” Matassa said. “We’re seeing lots of animals closer to shore. The food has moved in there.”
Story written by Erika I. Ritchie of the OC Register