Dozens of dead seals have washed ashore onto southern Maine beaches over the past few days.
There are no obvious clues as to what caused the deaths, but both local and federal organizations are investigating the unusual spike. The deaths come during what appears to be a challenging year for seals in Maine.
Every year during the spring and summer, Lynda Doughty expects to be busy. It’s prime time for her organization Marine Mammals of Maine to respond to sick and injured seals. But typically, there are lulls in the season. Not so this year.
“And then the last few days it blew up, and it’s like, we’re in something right now and I’m not sure what that is, but we’re going to try to find out why,” she says.
By Tuesday, Marine Mammals of Maine had responded to about three dozen dead seals on beaches from Cape Elizabeth south to York. The most dramatic finding was in Saco, where there was a report of a dead seal on the beach early Monday morning. By the time lifeguards showed up for duty, says Saco’s director of parks and recreation Ryan Sommer, another report came in.
“At which time they began to walk the beaches and began to notice a sizable amount of numbers of dead seals,” he says.
Eleven dead seals in all: 10 pups and one adult. It was an unusual discovery for Saco, and the high number of dead seals throughout southern Maine, which have affected all age groups, is also unusual, says Mendy Garron, regional stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Looking at historic records, the average for August in southern Maine is around 38 animals. And that’s the total number we’ve had in the last two days,” she says.
Garron says in the past, there have been periodic spikes in mortalities related to the flu, something not unusual for Maine’s harbor seal population. In the recent deaths, it’s still not clear. NOAA is conducting necropsies, sending tissue samples to test for diseases and also looking for possible environmental and human impacts.
Marine Mammals of Maine is also investigating, even as volunteers care for distressed seals at its triage center in Harpswell. Doughty says in addition to more than 30 dead seals, they’ve also responded to 10 live seals in recent days and brought two of them in for care. One of them is No. 274.
“Our number system depends on how many animals we’ve actually responded to. So this is the 274th animal that we’ve responded to. And this animal came in on Aug. 12, and we’re already up to over 308,” she says.
Three hundred and eight is already more than the total number of animals the organization responded to last year, which was 282. Doughty sees no obvious clues to explain why the numbers are up. But she says in general, the seals are in worse shape than usual.
“They’re just more down and out. More lethargic, and just — got some respiratory issues coming on. They just have a lot more of these secondary issues that they’re coming in with,” she says.
Doughty checks on a different seal — a juvenile, No. 287.
“It’s still dealing with a lot. It just came in yesterday and has, as you can see, an infection going on. He’s got a high white [blood cell] count that his body is trying to respond to, but this is an animal that’s very critical, at this point,” she says.
Doughty says if you spot a distressed seal on the beach, keep a good 150 feet away to avoid causing further stress to the animal, and call their hotline for help at 1-800-532-9551.