'The state of the ocean is in peril': Inside Bay Area's Marine Mammal Center working to help stranded, starving sea animals

SAUSALITO, Calif. (KGO) -- Up and down the West Coast, pacific gray whales are showing up dead or stranded at an alarming rate. At the same time, sea lions and seals are washing up to Bay Area shores malnourished and with diseases. To understand why this happening and what's being done to help these animals, there's no better place to go than Sausalito's Marine Mammal Center. It's the largest hospital for marine mammals in the world and where many of these animals get treated.

Once there, there's no better person to talk to about these issues than Dr. Cara Field, the hospital's lead veterinarian.

"The last five years we've seen a big uptick in the number of patients every year," Dr. Field explained. "Historically we would see maybe 600 to 800 animals per year. The last five years we've seen at least 800 patients a year." And some years, she added, hundreds more than even that.

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So why is this happening? The simplest answer is most of the animals are starving, unable to find food. But why that is happening is more complex.

"The state of the ocean is definitely in peril," Dr. Field said. "These animals are incredible sentinels for what's happening on the bigger, broader picture."

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On a typical morning at the Marine Mammal Center, volunteers start just before 8 a.m. m doing morning feeds. They fill fish with various medications and feed them to the animals. When we were there in August, that included California sea lions, harbor seals and baby elephant seals. Some of these patients respond well to their treatments and are soon set free, but others have more severe health problems such as pneumonia, infections or even cancer. Those animals are taken to the hospital's surgery wing.

On the day we were there, doctors were preparing for procedures on two California sea lions. One, named Flyaway, was getting x-rays for pneumonia and the other, named Sue, had an infection in her left eye and was going to have it surgically removed.

"The best opportunity this animal has for recovery is to surgically remove the eye," Dr. Emily Whitmer, a veterinary fellow at the Marine Mammal Center, explained. "Our patients are able to survive remarkably well if they have one functional eye."
If this surgery seems impressive, it is.

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The Marine Mammal Center is also a leading teaching hospital and the methods and procedures implemented there by Dr. Field are being taught and used around the world. After all, this is a global problem.

"The problems that the animals come in with are an indicator of what's happening in the ocean and some of that is driven by climate change," Dr. Field said, "So changes to prey availability for example can be driven by changes in water temperature, which is a direct reflection of climate activity."

Many of the animals are released back into the ocean, healthy and happy. A complicated fix to an even more complicated problem.

"If the animals are unhealthy from eating the food they normally eat, we eat that too," Dr. Field explained, "So, we run the risk of becoming sick from some of these things as well."

Still, Dr. Field believes every day changes can make a difference.

"Reducing our use of plastics, beach clean ups," she said. "All these small things add up when you get hundreds of thousands of people involved."
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