It was just a little over a year ago that San Pedro’s Marine Mammal Care Center shouted out an  S.O.S.

The much loved sea lion hospital, a fixture on the town’s southern bluffs since 1992, was in deep financial distress.

This week, following months of intense fund-raising in the midst of the pandemic that didn’t help the effort, the center announced it has raised more than $2 million, enough to stabilize the nonprofit animal hospital.

Amber Becerra, an attorney who voluntarily came on board in late 2019 to help lead the immediate effort to raise $1 million just to keep the center operating through the next fiscal year — July 2020 to July 2021 — said the center is on the road to sustainability.

“We’re out of that world where we were going to have to close at any minute,” she said of the new financial stability in a telephone interview on Friday, Feb. 19. “The wonderful news is the center is no longer facing closure and we now have an eye toward reaching financial sustainability.”

The board recently began searching for a new executive director, a position that has been left empty for over a year, but was not able to settle on any of the applicants. So in February, Becerra took on the role of the center’s full-time president and CEO at an annual salary of $120,000. The board also has hired a new full-time operations and education director, Dave Bader, who was formerly the education director at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. He will be paid $100,000 a year.

Becerra said her salary will be covered by a three-year grant that also will cover development staff and fundraising programs.

The previous executive director was paid  $82,500 a year and was only part-time.

The crisis hit after the center experienced higher-than-normal expenses, specifically for upkeep on the facility’s infiltration system and other infrastructure needs.

The local sea lion population also experienced unusual mortality events from 2013-17, which further strained the budget and overwhelmed the staff and infrastructure. The nonprofit center serves an area that stretches from Seal Beach to Malibu and relies on donations and grants to stay afloat.

But concurrently, donations had not kept pace with those needs over the course of a couple years.

Just months after declaring the crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing the center to shut down its gift shop and public tours, other sources of money it depended on.

Due to the pandemic, the usual $200,000 to $300,000 provided to the center by the state of California also wasn’t coming in.

But for now, Becerra said, the center is “out of the crisis mode.”

Most of the staff is also now vaccinated, which has been a major help, she said.

“The vaccinations are a tremendous blessing because we work in such close proximity,” Becerra said. “We’re already cautious and very sanitary in the way we run the operation, but we also made the very difficult choice to send most of our (150 volunteers) home.”

That meant relying on about 10 remaining unpaid workers since early 2020, she said.

The annual budget was $1.6 million when Becerra and an all-female, volunteer board started the reorganization in late 2019. They cut annual spending to $1 million.

“We took it to an absolute crisis operation to save as much money as possible and guarantee another year,” she said. “As we reached that goal, we opened up a little more, with more discretionary medical testing and bringing on another staff person.”

By June 2020, the center had raised $1.2 million, putting it on a path toward recovery and ensuring that the center would continue operating through July 2021.

With the more recent donations and grants bringing the total amount raised to $2.2 million, she said the annual budget now stands at about $1.2 million, but she hopes that the center again can support a full $1.6 million annual spending plan.

Since it was established in 1992, the center has rescued and treated more than 8,000 animals stranded on Southern California beaches.

As for reopening to the public, that’s being discussed but could look different for a while, Becerra said.

While the center normally is open to visitors who just want to wander in, it may need to be more regulated and a reservation system put into place, with masks and social distancing protocols required.

The center has sponsored a few public events in the past several months and is planning another “pop-up” gift shop event perhaps in another month, Becerra said.

Those interested in helping out can do so by:

The majority of funds raised, Becerra said, goes directly to providing medical care, food and shelter for the marine mammals being treated.

 

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

Load comments