NOAA DECLARES AN UNUSUAL MORTALITY EVENT
By Michael Davenport, Marine Species & GIS Programs Manager
Since September, at least 146 harbor seals were found dead along the New England coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared the deaths “an unusual mortality event” and federal officials are now investigating the cause(s) of the deaths. Five of the dead seals have tested positive for the Influenza A virus.
NOAA has ruled-out human involvement in the deaths (such as intentional attacks or entanglement in fishing line). They also reported that the number of deaths is three times the number of strandings that typically occur this time of year.
The months of November and December are when seals normally return to New Jersey waters from further north (they can usually be found during the winter in NJ until April when they swim north again). For this reason, there is great concern that our state’s shores may soon also witness a higher than average number of sick or dead seals.
Any dead seals or seals which appear to be ill or in distress should be reported to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. Keep in mind, however, that a seal on the beach is not necessarily sick or injured. Resting on the beach is normal behavior for seals. They may haul-out onto beaches, jetties, or floating docks to rest or escape predators. So, a seal on land is not necessarily a seal in distress. Obvious indications of illness or injury are open wounds, entangled fishing line, or lack of responsiveness to their surroundings.
While all four species of seal which occur in New Jersey (the gray, harbor, harp, and hooded) are not endangered or threatened, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They may not be approached at a distance of less than 50 yards. Also, it is important to not allow dogs near seals whether the seal is injured or not. Dogs will disturb resting seals and both the seal and dog can injure each other. Also, keep in mind that sick or dead seals may be able to transit disease to dogs, such as Influenza, and may pose a health risk to humans as well.
So, please be especially observant of seal activity this winter, but at a safe distance of no less than 50 yards, and report any sick or injured seals (or other marine mammals) to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center.