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Seacoast Science Center at helm of marine mammal rescue team

Union Leader Correspondent

January 19. 2014 7:47PM

RYE — For many years, volunteers and staffers with the Seacoast Science Center have been assisting the New England Aquarium with marine mammal rescue and recovery efforts on New Hampshire’s coastline.

Now the nonprofit organization will lead New Hampshire’s efforts with the start of the first Marine Mammal Rescue Team dedicated to and located in the state.

The program has been unofficially up and running since Jan. 1. Gov. Maggie Hassan will announce the official launch during an event at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel in Portsmouth on Tuesday morning.

The Seacoast Science Center was granted authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to lead New Hampshire’s marine mammal rescue effort in November.

The center’s MMRT will respond to reports of stranded, injured and diseased seals, whales, porpoises, dolphins and other marine mammals in New Hampshire’s coastal region through operation of a 24/7 hotline and the ability to directly notify and send responders.

They will continue collaborating with the New England Aquarium and the Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. The Seacoast Science Center will lead the rescues, the aquarium will conduct necropsy and pathology examinations on recently deceased animals and the MARC will manage rehabilitation and release.

Ashley Stokes will serve as the MMRT coordinator in addition to her other duties at the SSC.

People who see a marine mammal on the beach can call the hotline and leave a message detailing what they are seeing and where. Someone with the MMRT will get right back to that individual to get more specific information and then dispatch staff or volunteers based on the situation.

Recently deceased animals will be transported to the New England Aquarium. Live animals will be monitored to see if they are actually in need of a rescue.

“They might be healthy, but need time to rest. Then we will have a volunteer stay there, kind of monitor the situation and keep people away, post some signs,” Stokes said.

If after 24 hours they think the animal might need help, they will work with their consulting veterinarian and then the animal would be transported to UNE for rehabilitation and release.

Seals are by far the number one marine mammal N.H. beachgoers are likely to encounter.

Harbor seals are in the area year round, gray seals turn up in the winter months and sometimes “ice seals” including harp and hooded seals make their way down from the north and into New Hampshire.

The Center’s first call through the hotline this year was for a live hooded seal spotted on the northern end of Hampton Beach, which eventually made its way back to sea on its own.

The busiest time for the center will be between mid-May and late-June during the harbor seal pupping season.

The Center is embarking on an awareness and education campaign about the new MMRT and what beachgoers should do if they spot a marine mammal on the beach.

Stokes said it is perfectly normal for seals to spend some time on land, but many people do not understand this.

“It’s been shocking to me the last few years … how many people live on the Seacoast, have lived there forever, and don’t realize that it’s completely normal for a seal to come out and rest on the beach,” Stokes said.

The SSC is also working closely with first responders, who often get calls about stranded animals, and town governments about posting signage at all of the state’s coastal beach access points.

“Hampton typically sees the highest number of animals. Second to that is Rye, which is actually a very close second and we have already gotten approval from both of them (the towns), as well as New Castle,” Stokes said.

There were several reasons why the SSC pursued becoming the state’s lead for marine mammal rescue response, not least of which was the scaling back of the New England Aquarium’s efforts in this area.

Stokes said the SSC seemed like the perfect organization to take up the effort in New Hampshire, although funding is a bit of a concern.

She said they are working hard now to find funders, both corporate and individual, to fund the rescue center moving forward.

They do have some startup funding and have applied for at least two grants. The estimated cost to run the program annually, not including any rehabilitation or necropsies, is about $70,000.

Between 2010 and now, an average of 70 marine mammals, living and dead, have been reported on New Hampshire’s coast each year.

Seals are all protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and it is illegal to disturb or harass them. If someone spots a seal on the beach they are encouraged to keep back at least 150 feet and call the hotline.

The MMRT is made up of SSC president Wendy Lull, Stokes, two assistants, a consulting veterinarian and a staff of volunteers. Right now they are working with a handful of volunteers who had already been trained through the New England Aquarium, had served as volunteers previously and wanted to continue working with the SSC. By late summer, they hope to start recruiting new volunteers.

The MMRT Hotline is 997-9448.

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