The Marine Mammal Center does the hard work of rescuing and rehabilitating injured or sick seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals and returning them to the ocean. But that is just part of what this 46-year-old institution accomplishes day in, day out, 365 days a year.
The Marine Mammal Center is near and dear to my heart. When I took the helm of Oracle Giving back in 2008, our grant to the Center was one of the very first I originated. At that time, we were also beginning to work with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative globally and I felt it would be nice to team up locally with the Sausalito, California-based organization, which is not far from Oracle’s Redwood Shores campus.
The Center’s CEO Jeffrey Boehm sat down with me recently to chat about this work and our long friendship. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.
Colleen: You have missions in addition to the rescue and rehab of animals. The Center’s efforts include a great educational program for middle schoolers, community-building locally and globally, and training scientists and others from around the world. Can you talk about that?
Jeff: Our disentanglement effort is a great example. The center has done a terrific job taking care of patients, getting them well and back out in the ocean. But in the last five to eight years we’re not just reacting to the inflow of patients, but also proactively becoming part of the solution. Whales and sea lions have long gotten entangled in fishing lines and crab pots and it’s a tough problem. It’s one thing for an entangled animal to be sighted and reported, it’s another thing to have teams with the capacity and training to go out on the water and do the phenomenally tough work of locating and successfully disentangling that animal.
We have a growing cadre of certified staff trained in that work, which involves use of small vessels, and telescoping rods equipped with GoPro cameras on the end that are used to identify the exact rope or fishing line wrapped around the belly of the animal. If we’re going to make one cut, our success depends upon getting it right.
A related example of a really satisfying new development is that local crab fishing communities are opening their doors to us. They recognize that we’re not a strident-voiced oppositional group, we’re a “Hey let’s figure this out,” type of group. Of course, the livelihood of Dungeness crab fishers is important. And, we’re being appreciated by those folks for the objective, science-based, data-driven mindset that we bring to the conversation. It’s remarkable. I see that with other conservation organizations that’s not always the case. People run and hide.
This work with the crab fishing community is an example of how we are getting out there to make a difference in the short term around animals being entangled and injured, while also looking down the road to how we decrease these instances of negative impacts in the long term.
Often, entangled seals and sea lions are healthy, active, and large. It takes skill to figure out what kind of sedation is needed, how to safely deliver the sedation by dart gun, and how to follow the animal until it is sedated enough to disentangle. That is not something all organizations know how to do.
Part of our Global Response Initiative is to train other organizations how to do this. We’ve sent our team out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Cape Cod, for example, to train them on how to disentangle gray seals.
Colleen: Tell us about the Center’s community and how it shares its work with the outside world? What you do is accessible—from the fish kitchen to necropsies. People can see what it means to help wildlife, including what can go wrong.
Jeff: Well, the fish kitchen sounds like a sushi restaurant but it’s really our hospital commissary where tens of thousands of pounds of frozen fish come in every year to feed our patients. We’ve seen as many as 1,800 patients in a calendar year and each patient has a diagnostic workup, a treatment plan, and of course needs nutritional support. The fish kitchen is the busy hub of our operations.
The center hums largely due to our volunteers. We have about 100 staff members and a 1,400-person volunteer corps, and those two groups are very much integrated. Together, they are our lifeblood.
Many of our volunteers are paraprofessional medics in the field, doing everything from observing to cleaning and tending to patients, pens, and pools, but they’re also administering meds, assisting with physical exams and keeping records. Some of our volunteer crews have been working here together for decades. In total, our amazing volunteers provide 150,000 hours of work per year, the equivalent of 70 full time staff.
Colleen: What is your call to action for people who want to be part of the solution?
Jeff: We must find out what we can about the problems we face and understand that they are all connected. For example, what we all do individually with our food choices matters. And, having conversations with those we encounter matters. Asking for cardboard instead of plastic for takeout; using reusable bags at the grocery store instead of plastic bags. It all matters.
Beyond that, individuals should make sure that the organizations and businesses they interact with share their belief that advancing conservation is an obvious step. Getting involved with what’s happening in the local community. What legislation is pending? What’s going on nationally around environmental priorities? Being a good steward of the environment is what I point people toward. There is satisfaction in that and there is value.
Most importantly, you have to be an optimist generally, and an ocean optimist in particular. I could not do my work if I were not an optimist.
We’ve got our work cut out for us and yet I feel like we’ve never been better poised to make a difference.
If you would like to support The Marine Mammal Center’s good work, you can donate here.
Photos courtesy of The Marine Mammal Center and Bill Hunnewell
Colleen Cassity is the Vice President of Oracle Social Impact and the Executive Director of the Oracle Education Foundation