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Sea Lion Rescue Effort Fails Again

Times Staff Writer

Animal rescue teams tried unsuccessfully Friday to capture an injured sea lion from a Newport Harbor buoy so they could remove a fishing line wrapped tightly around its neck.

Volunteers from Friends of the Sea Lion managed to cast a net partly over the animal’s head, but the frightened sea lion quickly slid off the buoy into the water.

The rescue effort was the second by the Laguna Beach-based organization in recent weeks. The sea lion snagged the fishing line around its neck 6 weeks ago and, according to marine life experts, is in danger of bleeding to death if the line tightens much more.

Rescue Fails

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Four volunteers from Friends of the Sea Lion were transported by an Orange County Sheriff Department’s Harbor Patrol boat late Friday afternoon for the second rescue attempt. After failing to snag the animal--estimated to be about 2 to 4 years old and weigh 130 to 150 pounds--rescuers waited an additional 30 minutes before calling off the attempt due to darkness.

“One more inch and I think I would have got him,” said a frustrated John Cunningham. Cunningham’s 225-pound frame has enabled him to wrestle hundreds of other sea lions into nets in the 16 years since he helped found Friends of the Sea Lion and became its director.

But Cunningham said he has rarely been able to retrieve an injured sea lion from an ocean buoy, since the animals’ first inclination is to swim away at the sight of approaching humans.

Rescuers thought they had the right conditions late Friday afternoon; the injured sea lion lounged with two companions on a buoy that was barely bobbing in glassy waters.

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Judi Jones, another Friends volunteer, said Friday seemed ideal because the animal had exhibited little skittishness at the approach of boats and the waters were fairly clear of traffic. Jones added that the weekend is a bad time to attempt a rescue because the increased boat traffic keeps the sea lions in a frightened, agitated state.

Closest Yet to Animal

Cunningham and Jones, assisted by Friends volunteers Steve Momeyer and Bill Ford, said this was the closest yet that rescuers have been able to get to the injured sea lion.

The volunteers vowed to make another rescue attempt, perhaps as early as next week. Jones said the animal looks remarkably healthy, although it has a visible wound from where the non-biodegradable fishing line has tightened around its neck. The sea lion appears well-nourished, she said.

If the Friends’ attempts to capture the sea lion fail, it’s not likely that anyone else will step in to help. The health and safety of marine mammals falls under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which indicated Friday that it would not step in.

“We can’t be everywhere at one time,” said Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the service at Terminal Island.

Consequently, the service designates certain agencies and volunteer groups to retrieve injured animals when they come ashore, rehabilitate them, tag them and then release them again to the wild, Cordaro said. In the case of the Newport Harbor sea lion, the designated rescue group is Friends of the Sea Lion, he said.

Cordaro added that he did not expect the injured sea lion to be rescued soon.

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“The way it’s avoiding capture, it’s not as injured as people think. . . ,” he said. “They’ll have to wait until it’s in a more weakened state to not harm the animal or the people who are trying to reach it.”

Times staff writer Marcida Dodson contributed to this story.


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