A leading rescuer of sick or injured marine mammals in Santa Monica Bay has finally received the go-ahead for his vision of a second care facility in the region to treat rescued sea animals.

Peter Wallerstein, director of Marine Animal Rescue (MAR), has been keeping busy over the years rescuing seals, sea lions, sea birds and dolphins that may have become sick, injured or stranded along the county coastline. Just this year alone, Marine Animal Rescue has been involved in nearly 330 rescues, including 109 in May, a record for a 30-day period.

Though the organization has helped bring thousands of marine mammals to treatment over the years, there have been some instances in which animals were unable to be rescued because area rehabilitation centers were over- crowded. He recalled how the only facility available in San Pedro was filled up during El Nino conditions in 1998, leaving some starving sea lions on the beach, which motivated him to explore a second treatment center in the county.

Wallerstein said that goal is finally moving ahead after the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) agreed that additional resources are needed to assist sick or injured marine mammals. The agency recently authorized MAR to design, construct and operate a second marine mammal care site at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey to rehabilitate hundreds of animals each year, he said.

“I’m excited about the chance to do it,” Wallerstein said of the care center proposal. “When we started out our goal was to enhance and raise the standard of marine mammal care in the community, and this is just another piece of that puzzle.”

The marine rescue team will operate the planned facility for three years under the authority of the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center in Laguna Beach, which will act as a mentor. Working with the mammal center will allow Wallerstein’s team to ensure that the animals receive the best medical attention before they are released back to their natural habitat, he said.

“MAR will work closely with PMMC and will be able to consult with them on every rescue case,” he said.

Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the fisheries service, said the agency authorized the care center to be a mentor because MAR does not yet have adequate rehabilitation experience to operate a facility on its own. The Laguna Beach care center has treated a number of animals that Wallerstein has rescued over the years and thought it would be a great opportunity to help his team with its planned Dockweiler facility, said Michele Hunter of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

The two parties will be able to learn from each other through the partnership, she said, adding that the new facility will help ease the burden on the San Pedro center at Fort MacArthur.

“I think that the second center will help with the influx that the (San Pedro) center has taken upon for so many years,” Hunter said.

Cordaro also pointed to the need for a second county facility saying that more and more marine animals are needing to be rescued every year and the San Pedro center appears to be overwhelmed. When a treatment facility has reached its capacity it means that animals are having to stay on the beach longer, he explained.

“The populations are getting so large and there are so many animals coming in that it seems like Fort MacArthur is full all the time,” Cordaro said. “By having this other facility it will not only alleviate the workload of Fort MacArthur but we can bring in more animals than we are capable of bringing in now.”

Wallerstein added, “This is going to ease the strain of the one in San Pedro. We’re not competing; we’re trying to enhance marine mammal care in the community.”

Wallerstein said the new rehabilitation site will not only be able to handle immediate needs of the animals but potential catastrophic needs. MAR is seeking LEED certification and the designs will be created by award-winning green architect David Hertz, he said.

The approximately $5 million project will likely be funded through individual donors, corporate sponsorships and other sources, Wallerstein said. The finished building will have heated floors, an indoor intensive care unit and the latest in diagnostic and surgical equipment. Another key feature, he said, will be a veterinary teaching hospital for marine mammals.

The marine animal rescuer acknowledges that there are a number of other hurdles in the process, including California Coastal Commission approval, but he is excited to move forward with his vision of a new care center.

“There is a lot of work to do but at least we’ve been given the go-ahead by the federal government,” he said.

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