Local residents are rallying to save the Alaska SeaLife Center, the state's only marine mammal rescue center and a hub for scientific research.
The educational facility in Seward — which opened in 1998 — is in danger of closing permanently this fall if it can't raise enough money to make up for the economic loss caused by a dramatic decline in summer visitors, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SeaLife Center estimates it will have to raise about $2 million by Sept. 30 to pull through until next year's visitor season, and they're asking for the public's support.
"The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only center in the State of Alaska that does rehabilitation of marine mammals. So they are incredibly important for the entire state," said Melissa Good, Alaska Sea Grant's marine advisory agent in Unalaska.
Since starting her position with Alaska Sea Grant — a statewide program to support healthy coastal resources headquartered at University of Alaska Fairbanks — in 2014, Good has sent one fur seal pup and three ringed seals to be rehabilitated at the center.
The ringed seals are an Arctic species that typically lives far north of the ice-free Aleutian Islands. But during the winter of 2017/18, when the arctic ice pack was the second lowest on record, scientists speculated that the seals were driven to seek out new areas to rest, eat, and have their pups. And more than 50 of them showed up in temperate, ice-free Unalaska that winter.
The SeaLife Center was a vital tool during that time, according to Good.
"These were observations of live ringed seals — many of them in poor health," she said. "So the Alaska SeaLife Center was on speed dial for me, and I was contacting them for every single seal that we observed. As soon as I got a phone call from a local about a ringed seal being on shore, I would locate it, contact the SeaLife Center and they would walk me through whether this was a healthy animal, maybe an animal that was not in great health, but possibly could stay out in the wild and keep going and get better. Or if a ringed seal was essentially on its deathbed, and the only way for this seal to survive was by rehabilitation through intervention by a veterinarian. So they are absolutely crucial in making those decisions."
The fur seal pup found in Unalaska was released back into the wild in California, and the ringed seals were rehabilitated and kept at the center for education and research because animals picked up outside of their natural range can't be released, according to Good.
"Of the six ringed seals in the nation that are at wildlife facilities, we have sent in three of those — so three of those have come from Unalaska," Good said. "And this has been from observations by Unalaska residents, where I've been able to successfully pick them up and get them into a secure location and ship them out to the Alaska SeaLife Center. So they've been huge."
If the SeaLife Center is forced to close its doors this fall, Good said it'll greatly impact local marine mammals in need of rescuing and rehabilitation. If an animal in poor health is sighted in Unalaska, and won't be able to survive without intervention, they're just going to have to let it be.
"There will be no rescuing of live marine mammals anymore without the Alaska SeaLife Center facility available to take them in," Good said.
With the closure looming, every little bit counts, said Good, from making donations to the center to making legislators aware of its importance to Alaska and Alaskans. And businesses and individuals are rallying around the state. More than 22 Alaska businesses are donating a percentage of their sales to the SeaLife Center, according to the center's website. Other businesses have donation jars or are holding fundraising events, and individuals are holding their own campaigns to sustain the center until next summer.
"I'm trying to promote the Alaska SeaLife Center and the fact that they're having difficulties due to COVID-19, as everyone around the world is right now," said local Brianna McGrath, who started a virtual fundraiser in Unalaska to help support the facility's campaign to stay open. "Due to the lack of visitors coming to Alaska, they're at risk of closing down."
McGrath is selling face masks that say "Save the SeaLife Center" and have a drawing of a puffin and seal on the front. The masks are available through the online printer, Custom Ink.
McGrath came up with the idea after first wanting to hold a carwash fundraiser for Unalaskans to rally support. But, due to the pandemic and local and statewide health mandates, she decided to go virtual.
The closure of the center is personal for McGrath. In addition to being a top destination for Alaska's visitors, she said the Alaska SeaLife Center is a home for invaluable research about the ocean, arctic and subarctic marine wildlife, climate change, and much more. And her experience visiting a similar facility on the East Coast when she was young was what inspired her to become a biologist in Alaska.
"When I was a kid, I lived in Maine, and the closest place to see sea mammals was the New England Aquarium in Boston," McGrath said. "I remember being in fourth grade and my teacher asked all of us to make a drawing of what we wanted to be when we grew up. And I drew this lady in the penguin exhibit, who was just teaching everyone about penguins. For some reason that stuck with me as a kid, and I've always wanted to be a biologist since then. And here we are."
According to McGrath, there is no other place in the state that can do the work that the Alaska SeaLife Center does, and the loss of the facility would be a detriment to Alaskans and the sea animals who need its support.
"If we don't have a place like this, I think kids aren't going to be able to have that experience and learn about the amazing parts of Alaska and its creatures," she said. "And I don't know, that'll just be a sad day if that happens, and I hope it doesn't."
As of this Wednesday afternoon, McGrath had raised $330 selling face masks on Custom Ink. There's less than three weeks left for her fundraiser.
To find out more about Alaska SeaLife Center and its campaign to stay open, visit the center's website at alaskasealife.org.