Promoting Marine Life

The Southern California coastal region hosts a rich mix of marine and mammal life — but increasing pollution, maritime shipping traffic, and recreational activity in the region threaten marine mammals like harbor seals, sea lions, and whales.

Since 1971, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach, California, has responded to encroaching threats by rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing injured or ill marine mammals that have been stranded along the Orange County coastline.

As part of its mission, PMMC releases an average of 100–150 harbor seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals back into the wild each year. The organization also helps free whales from entanglements, conducts research, provides educational programs, and inspires conservation and stewardship of the coastal area.

As PMMC’s work has expanded, so too has the nonprofit’s need for legal counsel. An Orange County-based team provided sophisticated legal support to PMMC, enabling the organization to efficiently secure numerous regulatory approvals to expand its facilities and focus on helping animals in need.

“We know and love this part of the world. We were thrilled to bring our knowledge of the regulatory landscape to support PMMC and its work, because we all benefit from healthy coastal waters and the amazing biodiversity that lives in them.”

Marc Campopiano, partner, Orange County

PMMC first requested our help in 2018 to enhance and improve its facilities, which are the only nonprofit facilities licensed to retrieve and care for marine mammals and the only temporary holding facility for small whales and dolphins between Santa Barbara and San Diego. The current facilities require approximately 5.5 million gallons of potable water annually, making PMMC the second largest consumer of water in the City of Laguna Beach after the city itself. The organization’s expansion plan will reduce water consumption by approximately 90% while allowing it to provide improved care to a greater number of animals. The expansion will also advance PMMC’s ocean conservancy education efforts through multipurpose learning annexes, teaching laboratory space, and renovated mammal pools emulating natural habitats with underwater viewing windows.

Our lawyers helped navigate regulatory approvals from local, regional, and state authorities that will enable PMMC to build a new water treatment and recycling facility, construct additional mammal pools, and expand the existing buildings. We also worked with the organization to secure US$500,000 in grant funding from the California Department of Water Resources.

“We know and love this part of the world,” said partner Marc Campopiano, who supervised the Latham team advising the nonprofit. “We were thrilled to bring our knowledge of the regulatory landscape to support PMMC and its work, because we all benefit from healthy coastal waters and the amazing biodiversity that lives in them.”

With Latham’s help, PMMC sailed smoothly through the approvals process and, in 2022, received permission to proceed with its expansion. We assisted PMMC in presenting the expansion plan to city officials and advocated for streamlined environmental review and approval of the entire project, rather than proceeding through several phases as the city initially envisioned. In addition, we helped PMMC’s technical consultants analyze potential environmental impacts across a variety of fields, including air quality, transportation, noise, biology, and wildfire. City staff agreed with our lawyers that the expansion was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, saving PMMC significant time and resources. Latham continues to advise PMMC in its negotiation of a bespoke financeable ground lease to increase its footprint on city property and allow PMMC to continue operations on the site for 25 more years (with an option to renew, at PMMC’s election, for an additional 25 years).

In conjunction with its expansion, the organization will be able to grow its impressive record of outreach and influence: welcoming more than 50,000 people visitors annually, reaching more than 7,000 children in at-risk communities through popular after-school and summer-school programs, and rescuing more than 9,000 marine mammals along Orange County’s 52 miles of coastline.