SeaLife Center stays in shipshape

Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2003

After a rough couple of years of startup the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward has hit its stride as a major marine wildlife research and rehabilitation center, which also happens to be a major visitor attraction.

The SeaLife Center has now achieved sustainable funding for its $11 million annual budget, most of it federal funds supporting research of endangered marine species, according to Tylan Schrock, its executive director.

The center is now important to Seward's economy. One hundred year-round jobs, plus another 50 seasonal staff during summer, put it among the community's top five employers.

"These are good, professional jobs. People who work here buy homes and are engaged in the community," Schrock said.

Visitors to the center also are important. The 150,000 people who visit the facility each year finance only about 20 percent of the SeaLife Center's budget but the business they bring to Seward has helped "anchor" the city's downtown, particularly its hotels, restaurants and gift shops, he said.

Seward is a big port for cruise ships, but tourists from the ships account for only 10 percent to 15 percent of ticket sales, Schrock said. Eighty percent of visitors to the SeaLife Center are independent travelers, many from the Anchor-age area, who typically come to take one of the popular Kenai Fjords sightseeing tours and also stop at the SeaLife Center.

There also are many youth groups from schools, scout troops and churches. Spring has become a busy time at the center for school groups, and last year there were children from eight states and one city in Canada, said Aaron Saunders, public relations director for the center.

A popular new program is the Nocturne Program, where groups of children can spend the night in the center, bedding down among the sea lions and diving birds, Saunders said.

The center is cultivating specialty groups such as birdwatchers who want to see and photograph unique and rare seabirds close up before going out to seek them in their natural habitat, he said.

Schrock said the facility has three lines of business, or missions, in research, rehabilitation and education.

Hosting visitors and schools groups falls under the education mission, and research, a second mission, pays 80 percent of the bills.

Rehabilitation is important, too, and the facility has been designated as Alaska's only marine mammal rehabilitation center by the federal government.

Abandoned or injured seals and sea lions are brought to Seward from Southeast, the North Slope, Northwest Alaska and the Aleu-tians, to be made healthy and, if possible, returned to the wild, Saunders said.

One success is "Faith," a Steller sea lion pup washed away from her mother by a storm at a Southeast Alaska rookery and deposited on a deserted beach. Federal biologists found the infant Steller, just days old, and got it to Seward.

Now a year old, Faith was returned to her Southeast Alaska native habitat April 30, Saunders said. She is doing fine and gaining weight, according to federal scientists who have seen and photographed the sea lion, now marked for identification, after her release.

"This was one of five successful rehabilitations of Steller sea lions in North America, and it was tricky because we not only had to nurse the infant back to health, but had to go through developmental training," Schrock said.

"We didn't want Faith to imprint, or bond, with humans. She had to learn she was a sea lion and to be able to fish and forage on her own," he said.

Abandoned and injured seals often are brought in. The center receives about $500,000 per year in federal grants to support rehabilitation, Schrock said.

Saunders said the center's work in research is focused on endangered and threatened species. Since 2001 the SeaLife Center has the only resident collection of Spec-tacled and Steller's Eider ducks, which is allowing researchers to gain a baseline understanding on the threatened species' behavior and biology. The work is supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser-vice.

There also is work underway on whales, including a collaborative effort with Russian scientists to study gray whales and an ongoing program involving Orcas, or killer whales.

Scientists hope to determine if transient Orcas are feeding on young Steller sea lions, which could be a factor in population declines among the sea lions.

Things didn't look so good for the SeaLife Center in the first two years after its completion in 1998.

Schrock said initial estimates of revenues from visitors and other sources proved too optimistic, and many people in Seward, who had expectations that were too high, were disappointed.

About half of the center's $56 million in construction costs were paid with funds from a settlement of state litigation with Exxon over the big 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound, with much of the rest paid by the city of Seward through revenue bonds.

When initial revenues didn't meet expectations, city officials were worried that payments on the bonds couldn't be met. Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, concerned that the state would lose a major marine mammal research facility, secured federal grants to pay off the bonds. That has left the center debt-free, Schrock said.

Tim Bradner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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