Last Tear's Mortality Event Remains Under Investigation
By Charles McMahon
Hampton Union, Friday, April 27, 2012
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
An earlier-than-average appearance of seal pups along the Seacoast this spring has scientists keeping a watchful eye, especially in light of last year's unusual mortality event that killed hundreds of the marine mammals.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday they are noting unusually high numbers of seal pups for the time of year.
The findings come shortly after NOAA conducted an annual spring harbor seal population survey.
Mendy Garron, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the northeast region of NOAA Fisheries Service, said harbor seals tend to give birth in May and June along the northeastern U.S. coast. But this year, according to Garron, the harbor seal pups were reported as early as March.
"It was really early for us to be getting these reports," she said.
The unusual findings come about as Garron and other NOAA scientists work to investigate why more than 162 dead seals were found along the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts last fall.
NOAA officials declared the seal deaths an "unusual mortality event."
Test results from five harbor seals found dead on Seacoast beaches last fall revealed they died from a virus never before seen in marine mammals. Experts said the cause of death for the five seals - which were taken from beaches in Rye, Hampton and Seabrook - was a bacterial pneumonia caused by the Influenza A virus, subtype H3N8.
Garron said Tuesday that the research has been ongoing and that additional animals have tested positive for the influenza.
"What we're still trying to figure out is how that all affected the animals and contributed to their death," she said. "A lot of animals that had a flu really succumbed to a secondary bacterial pneumonia, which is what may have made them more susceptible to getting the influenza virus."
Garron said the investigation has included monitoring outside of the surrounding area to determine whether the influx of influenza is directly associated with local waters.
The process will continue with increased monitoring, or as much as funding will allow, said Garron.
"Money is tight," she said.
As far as the recent sightings of premature seal pups, Garron said, NOAA is hoping to remind people to stay away from any stranded seal they see on the shoreline.
"While it is not clear why the pupping season began so early this year, since harbor seals tend to use rocky islands, ledges or sandy beaches to give birth or just rest, chances of encountering a seal is greater, so it is really important that you don't approach, handle or feed them," said Garron. "Even though they look cute, these are wild animals, and getting too close puts the animal, humans and pets at risk."
Under federal law, it is illegal and punishable by law to pick up, handle or interact with free-swimming, dead or beached marine protected species. This includes seals, whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and manatees. Penalties for harassing these animals can be up to $50,000 and a year in jail. To report incidents of people or pets tormenting, disturbing or attempting to remove a seal from a beach, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline, (800) 853-1964.
o Stay at least 150 feet away from it. Pups' mothers may be just around the corner.
o Don't handle it, and keep other people and dogs away.
o Call a local marine mammal stranding network member; visit NOAA's Northeast Region Web site (www.nero.noaa.gov/prot_res/stranding) for local contact information, or call NOAA Fisheries Service's stranding hotline at (866) 755-6622.