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Visiting seals need space to stay safe - November 2, 2014

     In the coastal bays, we are used to seeing a huge variety of aquatic life; from seahorses to sharks, clams and oysters to dolphins, we have marine life in all shapes and sizes. During the winter, we generally tend to see less and less of these animals as they head south for warmer waters or hunker down to overwinter. However, not all aquatic animals shut down for the winter, in fact some are only seasonal visitors for the cold weather months. 

    Over the past few years the coastal bays have played host to several species of seals that visit us over the winter and fall months. Thus far we have seen four different species of seal including the Harp, Hooded, Harbor and Grey Seals. When these seals visit us here in the coastal bays, they tend to be solitary, and are generally young or juvenile seals. The seals come throughout the late fall and winter months, traveling from the colder Northern waters around Canada and the U.S. Northeast to the coastal bays and further south in search of warmer waters. These seals do not generally stay for longer than a week or two in our area before heading back out again, using the coastal bays as a recovery stop on their North-South migration along the Atlantic coast.  

    Seals are semi-aquatic animals, which means they need to spend some time on land. Seals can be seen on our beaches, rocky outcroppings and other shoreline areas when they ‘haul-out’ of the water.  Seals need to ‘haul out’ for a variety of reasons; to rest and recuperate, pup and reproduce, and even molt (shed). There is no definitive amount of time a seal must ‘haul-out’ for; some seals will only stay on land for a few hours while young seals may haul out for up to a week. Local disturbances, such as human interaction, can cause un-necessary stress to the animals and will encourage the seals to get back into the water, even if they are not prepared to. Disruptions and disturbances to seals during their ‘haul-out’ periods can lead to tired, stressed out and more vulnerable seals for larger predators like sharks. 

    With the yearly increase of our migrating visitors, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) has partnered with the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) to provide more public outreach regarding seals and their natural behaviors, as well as other protected marine mammal species.  

    Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMA). This means it is against the law to touch, feed, capture, collect or otherwise harass seals and sea lions in our waters. The MMA not only protects seals and sea lions, but also other marine mammals like whales, otters, dolphins, manatees and even polar bears. Harassment of an animal occurs when human behavior stresses the animal and changes the animals behavior or actions.

    In order to protect these animals, the best rule is to stay at least 50 yards away from any marine mammals ‘hauled-out’ on land or in the water. As previously mentioned, encroaching on a seal or other marine mammal on land can stress it out and send it back into the water before it might be ready. If you spot a marine mammal in the water, please do not boat over to it to get a better view. Unlike fish, marine mammals do not take dissolved oxygen out of the water via gills, so they need to surface to breathe. Boaters trying to get a closer look at our seal or other marine visitors run the risk of stressing out these animals, causing them to leave prematurely or possibly injuring them with inadvertent boat propeller strikes. 

    With the help of citizens, MCBP, MARP and other partners are aiming to create a source of information on local seal habits to aide scientists in the conservation and protection of these amazing animals. In order to do this, the MCBP and MARP have created a seal steward program which enables local citizens to keep track of seals in their area and make sure the seals have plenty of space, away from human interaction. Last year, the seal steward program was a great success, thanks to all of our wonderful volunteers who spent hours monitoring and protecting our seal visitors throughout the fall and winter. 

    This year, the MCBP and MARP will be holding its seal steward training at Mio Fratello Italian Steakhouse, in Selbyvile, Deleware. The training session will be held from 5-6 pm on Wednesday, November 12th. If you wish to attend the training and join the seal steward program, please contact Sandi Smith at the MCBP before attending by either email at sandis@mdcoastalbays.org or 410-213-2297 ext 106

    If you see a seal in the bays, we ask you to report it to MCBP (unless you feel it is in distress-then please contact MARP immediately at 1-800-628-9944) by either entering it online through our website –www.mdcoastalbays.org or by calling Sandi Smith at 410-213-2297 ext 107, so we can keep track of where our visitors are and how they are doing. Should you have a seal residing close to you, please keep us posted on its activity. The most important thing we can do to help protect these seals is give them space. 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 


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