Peter Wallerstein, rescue specialist and director of Marine Animal Rescue (MAR), spoke before the Marina Affairs Committee Oct. 19 about a new marine mammal care center that his organization is planning for Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey.

After 10 years of negotiation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have agreed that “there is a need for additional resources to assist sick, injured or orphaned marine mammals” and have authorized MAR to design and build it, he said. The only other area facility is in San Pedro, said Wallerstein.

“Under the authority granted by NOAA/NMFS to the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center in Laguna Beach, we can ensure that each and every animal in our care receives the best medical attention, increasing their chances of being released back to their coastal habitat, healthy and strong,” Wallerstein told the committee.

He also expressed appreciation that Santos Kreimann, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, has signed off on the new facility after studying the proposed project over the past year. County approval was a component following state approval, and the project still requires approval from the county’s Beach Advisory Committee.

No public funds will be utilized for the project, and all required funding for design and construction, between $5 million and $8 million, will need to be procured through donations, Wallerstein noted. At this time, celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Pierce Brosnan have expressed interest in the project, said Wallerstein. Funding for the day-to-day operations will also require donations, he said.

MAR has contracted with award-winning “green” architect David Hertz and his staff to collaborate on the project. The finished facility will have heated floors, an indoor intensive care unit, and the latest in diagnostic and surgical equipment. Wallerstein believes it will further the knowledge of marine mammal health and serve as a marine mammal teaching hospital. The facility is planned to be 20,000 square feet, with outdoor pens, shallow pools for rehabilitation.

“We’ll set a new standard by using solar and alternative energy sources,” said Wallerstein.

For over 25 years volunteers at MAR – formerly Whale Rescue Team, a non-profit founded by Wallerstein in 1985 – have rescued thousands of entangled or beached whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and sea birds along the coast. MAR is part of Friends of Animals, a non-profit animal advocacy organization.

“One of the first things I did was to create a 24-hour, toll-free hotline for citizens to report stranded or injured marine mammals. People didn’t know whom to call,” he said.

“The organization’s mission is to replace an antiquated system of marine animal rescue with an effective, efficient and compassionate system providing every animal the best possible chance for survival,” said Wallerstein, who has worked as a first responder and hands-on caretaker of ailing marine animals all over the world. He has personally conducted over 4,000 marine mammal and bird rescues in Southern California.

The authorized territory of MAR includes Dockweiler Beach, Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica and San Pedro. Wallerstein noted that Dockweiler typically has the highest number of sick or injured marine mammal rescues in the county each year.

He added that MAR also responds to Will Rogers Beach, Torrance, Royal Palms, White Point, Cabrillo, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach.

MAR works in cooperation with the Los Angeles county and city lifeguards, police, fire, harbor patrol agencies, and animal service departments throughout the county. The marine rescue group is a participant in the national whale disentanglement network, and the organization also conducts educational presentations and community outreach programs throughout the county, he said.

“MAR vigorously opposes the capture and confinement of healthy marine mammals,” he said.

Approximately 218 marine mammals have been rescued by MAR so far this year. In 2010, over 372 marine mammals were rescued, and in 2009 there were 348, he told the audience. MAR specialists have developed rescue techniques and equipment designed exclusively for marine mammal rescues, ensuring the safety of both the animals and rescuers.

Wallerstein explained that MAR plans to fill in the gap in regards to offering adequate rehabilitation services for injured marine mammals in this community.

“One care site in the county isn’t enough, and rescuers must never be forced to leave injured animals on the beach,” he said.

In 2002, rescued sea lions suffering from domoic acid poisoning crowded the existing care site to capacity, causing some sick animals to remain stranded on the beach, he said. The site had been designed and constructed years before domoic acid, a toxic algae bloom, became an issue, and the effects of climate change are expected to make this need even more urgent, he added.

One of the audience questions centered on the amount of sea lions on the docks. Wallerstein pointed out that fishermen who clean their fish after they’ve returned to the harbor, and then dump the remains in the water, are basically encouraging the sea lions and birds.

One of the audience members said he’s seen a trail of the sea lions and birds following in the fishing boats, and said he was told that the fishermen prefer cleaning the fish in the harbor because the water is much calmer and the boat doesn’t rock back and forth. Having fish cleaning stations inside the harbor also exacerbates the problems, the speaker and Wallerstein agreed. The sea lions are being taught that they don’t have to hunt for their food if they can just follow the boats coming in, said another audience member.

Wallerstein said that some of the fishermen are “chumming,” or throwing fish entrails into the water to attract fish to catch, and that also attracts sea lions and birds.

For marine mammal or sea bird emergencies in Southern California, (800) 39-WHALE (94253), or contact@whalerescueteam.org.

For non-emergencies, (310) 455-2729. MAR’s address is Marine Animal Rescue, P.O. Box 821, El Segundo, CA 90245.

Helmet cameras are worn during the marine mammal rescues, and information and rescue videos are available online at www.whalerescueteam.org.

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