Home improvement for stranded sea lions

Whizzing drills and pounding hammers have mostly replaced yelping sea lions these days at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Staff and volunteers who help rehabilitate sick and injured pinnipeds were caring for only three sea lions the first week of the new year, a far cry from the hundreds in the first half of 2013.

The Laguna Canyon Road center is embarking on an expansion that will add a new intensive care unit, public restroom, multipurpose room and an observation deck. Crews have been putting down roofing shingles, painting outdoor trim and preparing to install drywall.

The center is also adding a formal gift shop to replace the current kiosk.

Selling merchandise is a primary source of revenue for the center, a nonprofit that relies otherwise on donations, said Melissa Sciacca, director of development.

Work should be done by next month — in time for the round of visiting sea lions expected in spring.

California sea lion pups usually start weaning from their mothers at age 6 months, which aligns with the period each spring when animals begin turning up on the sand, Sciacca said.

"Animals [who wash ashore] haven't shown proficiency to survive in the wild," Sciacca said. "Some animals are affected by injury — they will get tangled in a fish line or have bite wounds."

Record numbers of malnourished and dehydrated sea lions washed ashore on Orange County beaches in 2013. Mammal center personnel rescued 372 animals last year.

The facility topped out at an "overwhelming" 167 sea lions at one time, Sciacca said.

During a particularly challenging period, the center fielded more than 100 calls and performed 18 to 20 rescues a day.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Department declared the mass strandings an "unusual mortality event," one of only 60 such declarations issued since 1991, according to the NOAA website.

More rescues than usual

"[Unusual mortality events] send a signal the environment is a little out of balance," said Keith Matassa, the center's executive director.

Orange County reported 320 stranded seas lions from January to May 2013 compared with 63 for the same period in 2012, according to the NOAA website.

Scientists haven't pinpointed a definitive cause for the mass strandings, but one theory relates to the distances sea lions need to travel to eat certain types of fish, if the fish can be found at all.

"The fish they find might not have as much energy, so the mothers' milk may not be as caloric," Matassa said. "[Scientists] are still investigating."

Matassa, 50, was hired in February, bringing more than 27 years of experience with marine mammals in leadership positions. He previously worked at the University of New England's Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center.

He had witnessed mass strandings but never at the level he saw last year in Orange County.

"My biggest job was making sure the staff didn't burn out," Matassa said. "Luckily, I had such a well-trained staff."

At six months sea lions, should weigh 60 to 70 pounds, but many of the pups entered the center at about a third of that.

About 30% to 40% of sea lions that came into the center died, Sciacca said.

Most of those that survived were nurtured back to health and released into the Pacific, although three remain in the center's care.

"Every animal is treated as an individual, with their own treatment plan," Matassa said. "We put back animals who are ready to go into the wild."

As part of its work, the center tracks six sea lions by satellite, keeping up with their whereabouts and migratory patterns.

One of the study subjects is Roscoe, who the center has kept tabs on every day for the past six months, using data from the tracking tag, Matassa said.

Roscoe weighed 38 pounds when he entered the center in March. He bulked up to 83 pounds when he was released two months later.

Still recuperating at the center are Tito and Tucson, both rescued in spring. On Thursday Sciacca and Matassa watched as the duo weaved under water before thrusting themselves onto the pool deck, where the slippery surface created the perfect environment to slide a few feet.

"It's a good sign they're on their way to healthy recovery," Sciacca said.

New center programming

This year the center will begin a program, Citizens for Science, to help better understand what the animals do after they are released.

The program has two parts. The first is to educate those who use the water, such as paddle boarders, lifeguards, scuba divers and boaters, on how to responsibly observe animals in the wild who have tags on their flippers and report them.

The second is to have researchers from the center and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation from Long Island, N.Y., survey the Orange County coastline four times per year. Researchers will log the number and ages of seals and sea lions in a given area, tracking population changes with the seasons.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which serves areas from Seal Beach to San Onofre,

is the only one of its kind in Orange County. The center, at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. To report a stranded or injured sea lion or seal, call the center at (949) 494-3050.

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