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Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times

Over the past two weeks, experts with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) have seen a series of unusual health issues in marine mammals off the Orange County coastline.

Most notably, PMMC rescued two female adult sea lions with urogenital carcinoma. Urogenital carcinoma is a viral-induced cancer that is highly aggressive and most often fatal. Previously, this cancer has not often been recognized in sea lions in Orange County.

“This type of cancer is unique to sea lions and is thought to be caused by a virus that invades the animal’s tissues combined with exposure to environmental pollutants,” stated Dr. Hendrik Nollens, Vice President of Conservation Medicine and Science for PMMC. “In conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other subject matter specialists, including the Sea Lion Cancer Consortium, we are working to provide samples and perform research that will aid in a better understanding of this disease.”

These cancer cases come during the time of year when PMMC experiences its highest-level of marine mammal rescue cases. Annually, PMMC provides care for hundreds of marine mammals, including seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales.

“The loss of any animal saddens all of us committed to marine mammal health. However, I’m extremely optimistic about the enhanced research and services we are now able to provide Southern California. These recent cancer cases highlight both PMMC’s increased ability to recognize local ocean health issues and the need for additional science,” said Dr. Nollens. “This region’s coast is home to a wide cross-section of marine mammals. Working with NOAA and others to advance research related to this type of cancer, PMMC hopes to positively impact marine mammal health off the Orange County coastline and elsewhere.”

Dr. Hendrik Nollens joined PMMC three weeks ago and is leading the research and response to this and other marine mammal health and stranding events in Orange County. Nollens is a leading research scientist and veterinarian having served marine mammals in North America, Europe and elsewhere. Nollens received his veterinary degree from the University of Gent in Belgium, a master’s degree in marine biology from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a PhD in infectious diseases of marine mammals from the University of Florida.

“I am thrilled to have Dr. Hendrik Nollens join the marine mammal stranding response community on the west coast, and welcome his experience and passion for marine mammal medicine, welfare and health research. I look forward to working with Dr. Nollens and his team,” said Dr. Frances Gulland, U.S. Marine Mammal Commissioner.

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