Nature conservationist takes on sea lion mystery

Jeff Corwin has done television segments on sea lions before, but not like the one he just wrapped up earlier this week at Laguna Beach's Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

"It's a perfect ocean mystery for us. It really is an ocean mystery," Corwin said Tuesday at the center, which has treated hundreds of malnourished and dehydrated sea lion pups this year.

Corwin, the witty and funny TV producer and nature conservationist, helped feed, diagnose, evaluate and assist center personnel while crews filmed an episode for the third season of Emmy Award-nominated series "Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin."

Sea lion yelps filled the late afternoon air as Corwin wrapped up for the day.

"California pinnipeds really strike a powerful tone with people," Corwin said. "We see a lot of ourselves in them. When we see them distressed, something perhaps is wrong with our ecosystem."

What's causing sea lions to become sick in Southern California remains a mystery, Corwin said.

Unprecedented numbers of emaciated sea lions have flooded the center — which serves all of Orange County — since January.

The mammal center declared a state of emergency in March, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries department called the mass strandings an "unusual mortality event."

The center counted 130 sea lions in its care after staff released two into the ocean Wednesday, said Melissa Sciacca, its marketing and development director.

Orange County admitted 293 sea lions from January to April 14, compared with 31 admitted during the same period in 2012, according to the NOAA website.

The mammal center is seeing progress.

Many of the sea lions have started eating fish — Sciacca said they are going through 650 pounds daily — to help the animals reach the target release weight of 60 to 70 pounds.

Many sea lions arrive at the enter at one-third of their normal weight, Sciacca said.

"[The sea lions] are so depleted of protein and all nutrients, it takes two to four months to get them where they need to be," she said.

Corwin heard about the record number of sea lions being admitted to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center a month ago when he visited to work on a separate television project with chef Jamie Oliver.

He knew immediately what he wanted to do.

"I saw this incredible catastrophic mortality event and said, 'We need to get here as quickly as we can to do a show,'" Corwin said. "Many people here cherish this resource, and it's refreshing to see that this facility has so many partners that are fighting along with them to save this species."

Corwin will work with NOAA scientists to try to shed more light on why so many sea lions are sick.

"We have been sampling animals to identify any infectious diseases [sea lions] might have, either viral or bacterial," Sarah Wilkin, NOAA's marine mammal stranding coordinator for California, wrote in an email.

She was quoted in an earlier Coastline Pilot story as saying the pups had trouble finding food earlier this year.

"It's a new frontier when it comes to managing this iconic keystone species," Corwin said. "[Sea lions] are so integrated into this area's culture, into tourism. A California sea lion should be on the state flag."

The "Ocean Mysteries" sea lion episode will air sometime this fall, said Ashley Lansdale, public relations manager with Georgia Aquarium, a sponsor and partner with the series. The series airs on ABC on Saturday mornings.

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