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SEA LIONS NEED REHAB CENTER DUE TO TOXIN WILDLIFE SPECIALISTS CALL FOR VENTURA COUNTY RECOVERY SITE.

Byline: Eric Leach Staff Writer

Most Southern California sea lions sickened by an algae-related poison are beaching themselves on Ventura County shores, highlighting the need for a local rehabilitation center, officials said.

Domoic acid, produced by blooming sea algae, is partly responsible for more than 100 sick sea mammals, mostly from Ventura, that have filled rehabilitation centers in Santa Barbara and San Pedro.

``Ventura County is where the majority of animals are coming up right now with domoic acid poisoning. We're in desperate need for land in Ventura County so we can put a rehab center there,'' said Joe Cordaro, wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach.

``It doesn't have to be on the ocean. It's a place for the animals to be given medical treatment and have time to recover.''

A number of animal-rescue groups have been trying to set up a center in the county for more than five years, but the effort has failed primarily due to high real estate costs.

The California Department of Health Services issued a special warning for Ventura County in late June, noting that high concentrations of domoic acid were detected off Ventura in sardines and anchovies.

These are fish eaten by the sea lions, particularly pregnant females producing milk for their young.

Sherrie Feger, a resident of the Silver Strand area at Channel Islands Harbor, said the situation is alarming to her and others who see the sick animals on Ventura County beaches.

``It's very stressing to see these things,'' she said. ``What can you do, just let these animals suffer? There's just nothing to do for these poor things.''

Kathy Fischer, a director of the Organization for the Respect and Care of Animals, which helps rescue stranded marine mammals, says the lack of a local rehabilitation center means some of the sick sea lions can't be helped.

``There are just too many animals,'' she said. ``We've just been overwhelmed. We were extremely backlogged.''

ORCA is a nonprofit group made up of volunteers who rescue and transport sick and injured marine mammals, including seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and otters.

Fischer, who has been working with marine mammals for two decades, is the coordinator of ORCA's efforts in Ventura County to rescue stranded animals.

``It's something I never thought I would see in my lifetime,'' Fischer said of the recent problems with domoic acid and stranded sea lion pups in Ventura County.

``We're extremely appreciative of San Pedro,'' she said of the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur, which had been taking many of the sea lions from Ventura County until recently.

The San Pedro Center is near capacity and has to focus on sick marine mammals in Los Angeles County, leaving Fischer and her group to look elsewhere for help.

She said although ORCA could get a grant to buy land, it would not likely cover the high costs of real estate in Ventura County.

``We've contacted hundreds of landowners in the past seven years. There's nothing for sale (at the right price). We've run out of options. Property is the main stumbling block here.''

Fischer and Cordaro said based on historical patterns of domoic acid poisoning, they hope the situation will improve this month in Ventura County.

``These toxin situations are elusive. We are hoping it will clear up, but the rehabilitation centers will be busy for quite a bit longer,'' Fischer said.

Cordaro said he expected the number of sick animals to decrease dramatically by the end of July.

``But it could return next year, and even without the domoic acid, sick animals will come up on beaches in Ventura County and other spots on the coast throughout the year,'' he said.

``Unless we can find some land at a reasonable cost for a center, Ventura County will continue to have a problem. ... The bottom line is Ventura County needs its own rehab center.''

Jackie Jaakola, director of the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, called the situation a crisis and said this was the busiest year for her center since it opened in 1992.

``If animals continue to strand in record numbers, I believe Ventura County needs its own center, because we're just not able to accommodate another county's animals,'' she said.

In a special warning issued June 24, the California Department of Health Services said consumers should not eat sport-harvested mussels, sardines and anchovies from the Ventura County coast because they could be contaminated with domoic acid.

Although no cases of human poisoning from this toxin are known to have occurred in California, symptoms include vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, headache, disorientation, seizures and loss of short-term memory. Severe cases can be fatal.

The Department of Health Services also placed a quarantine, as it does each year, on the sport-harvesting of mussels along the entire California coastline through Oct. 31 because of the potential of domoic acid and paralytic shellfish poisoning.

No commercially harvested shellfish are included in the annual quarantine because all commercial shellfish harvesters in California are subject to frequent testing and certified by the state.

Eric Leach, (805) 583-7602

eric.leach(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Sick sea lions get sun at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. The center had been taking many of the sea lions from Ventura County until recently.

Scott Smeltzer/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 10, 2005
Words:899
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