Maryland Coastal Bays

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Seal Appeal - November 27, 2016

Last year an early morning jogger noticed a seal on the beach and thanks to these articles, she knew to report it to the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP).

When a sighting is reported to MARP, they immediately dispatch a response team to determine whether the animal is in distress or has come ashore for a rest.

Seal sightings in Delmarva, both in the bays and ocean, are a normal occurrence during the winter months. Seals are semi-aquatic animals, which means they often spend a portion of each day on land.  Seals need to ‘haul out’ for a variety of reasons; to rest, pup and molt (shed). Young seals may haul out for up to a week.  The seals we see on our Delmarva beaches are normally young seals that have hauled out either to rest or they are in distress.

Although seals are not typically thought of as a local species to the area, they most likely have been visiting longer than we think. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) partnered with MARP six years ago and wrote a grant to receive funding for a program to provide public outreach regarding seals and their natural behaviors.  Through these public outreach programs we learned that the majority of residents had no idea seals were migratory visitors; however, there were a few residents that had a seal encounter. One was in the ocean while surfing and the other was in the bay while duck hunting. Both events occurred in in the 70s.

Since 2011, seal sightings have become more common in our estuary. There isn’t really any scientific data to back up why this is occurring. But there is scientific data that disturbance to a resting seal will cause un-necessary stress, and an up close human or dog encounter can make for a bad event for all parties involved.

Seals have an appealing, to some adorable, presence and appearance. Like the Assateague Ponies, one can’t help but want to get closer and even touch or feed them. But, such human contact does more harm than good. Like our cherished Assateague ponies, seals are large wild animals and can be extremely dangerous. They will bite and serious infections can be transmitted to you or your pet.

Seals are mammals, as are we. They are susceptible and can pass on nasty viruses such as herpes. Zoonosis, infectious diseases of animals that can naturally be transmitted to humans, is the biggest threat. A range of pathogens that not only include viruses like rabies, but also can include bacteria, fungi and parasites can cause these diseases.

Should a person or a dog have an interaction with a seal, this could end up with the untimely death of that seal. If bit, the seal will have to be destroyed to insure you or the dog was not infected with rabies.

Increased contact with people eventually leads seals to habituate to humans. Habituated seals are more likely to suffer from negative human interactions and are less likely to avoid dangerous situations.  For instance, feeding seals encourages them to approach boats looking for handouts. This behavior has resulted in injuries from boat propellers. It is much safer for seals to stay fearful of boats.

Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, (MMA). It is against the law to touch, feed or otherwise harass seals. Harassment occurs when your behavior changes their behavior. The rule is to keep at least 50 yards, four car lengths, to give them their space. Avoid being noisy and report a seal haul out to MARP by calling at 410-576-3880 or 1-800-628-9944.

If you are fortunate to be out on the water this winter, please keep your eyes peeled. Seals are likely to surface unexpectedly. And please stay at least 50 yards away if you see any on an island. This goes for non-motorized water vehicles as well. Close approaches should be avoided as they may elicit an alarm response, causing seals to rapidly enter the water. An exhausted seal becomes very vulnerable to predators and illness. And it is suggested to limit your viewing time to 30 minutes as continued presence can cause un-necessary stress.

With the help of citizens, MCBP, MARP, Ocean City Animal Control and other partners, the message is getting out and is creating a source of information on local seal habits to aide scientists in the conservation of this significant and majestic species.

MCBP’s seal steward program has become an integral component to this initiative. When a seal hauls and MARP response team deems it healthy, the stewards take two -hour shifts watching the seal and making sure beach goers keep a safe distance. They are also there to provide specific information on the seal they are watching.

MCBP and MARP will be conducting a seal steward training on Tuesday, December 13 beginning at 5:30 at the MCBP office, 8219 Stephen Decatur Highway. If you are interested in participating please contact Sandi at sandis@mdcoastbays.org or by calling 410-213-2297 ext 106.

If you see a seal on the beach, we encourage you to please call MARP. If you see one in the bay, we ask you to please report it to the MCBP program – unless you think it’s in distress (please call MARP), either by registering it on the website or simply call 410-213-2297 ext 106 and we’ll register it so we can tally this year’s sightings.

We hope and encourage our community to responsibly enjoy and protect our winter visitors. If you would like more information or have a group who would be interested in a presentation on our seal program please contact Sandi Smith at MCBP –sandis@mdcoastalbays.org or 410-213-2297 ext 106. Your tax-deductible donations make it possible for us to continue programs such as the seal stewards.

 

 

 



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