June 15, 2009

Marine Mammal Center Now Better Equipped to Save Sea Mammals

Scientists have recently discovered a surge in malnourished sea lions along the Northern California coast and are working hard to discover the cause.

"We're way ahead in the numbers this year. We have twice as many animals as we should," marine veterinarian Bill Van Bonn told the Associated Press.

Experts at the non-profit Marine Mammal Center, located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, believe the malnourished sea lions could be a result of a decline in populations of smaller fish that the sea lions feed on while developing.

"It's likely a problem with the food web, something lower in the food chain that is affected, but we are not sure what it is yet," said Van Bonn.

The center has treated elephant seals in makeshift facilities for the past 35 years, but on Monday, a new $32 million facility will be unveiled.  The facility has come just in the nick of time.

On average, the center treats 600 marine mammals a year.  Last year more than 800 were rescued, while in recent weeks, Marine Mammal Center staff have rescued 10 sea lions a day more than their average.

"It's concerning," said executive director Jeff Boehm.

According to Boehm, the new center will better equip the workers to figure out the riddle.

The new center has "a state of the art lab, a state of the art suite for performing science and doing that pathological work which helps us understand diseases," Boehm said.

Nearly 50 percent of the elephant seals, harbor seals, and California seals rescued by the workers make it out alive.  All of them help the center towards its scientific mission of storing genetic and tissue samples.

Currently, more than 14,000 samples have been collected.

The new facility also allows public access.  Visitors to the center can now view the animals or attend classes, at no charge.

Creators of the Marine Mammal Center also focused on a lighter environmental footprint when designing the building.  In the new facility, solar panels shade pens and provide electricity to the center, while ceiling tiles of seaweed and structural beams made of recycled materials compose the infrastructure.

Much of the center's work will be focused on studying the ocean's rising acidity level and its affect on marine mammals within the facility's 600-mile reach.

Only one-eighth of the patients at the center have been injured by fishing nets or boats.


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