RYE — The message is clear: Seals and selfies don’t mix.
Harbor seal pupping season is underway in New England and officials are reminding people that getting too close to the babies can lead to devastating, even deadly, results.
“It is vitally important that we do not interrupt the bond being formed between a mother seal and her pup. The mother often leaves her pup on the shore while she goes off to feed and if she senses danger there is a strong chance that she will not return,” said Ashley Stokes, manager of Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal Rescue.
It seems like common sense to give seals their space, but in today’s selfie culture, officials have to continuously tell people to stay at least 50 yards away from the seals.
On Jan. 30, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic Region’s branch sent out a warning to New Englanders about staying away from gray seal pups while also reminding people of May’s harbor seal pupping season.
“The popularity of selfies and capturing any moment through photographs or video is posing a new threat to wildlife and humans, including seals,” officials said. “Quietly watching from a distance can be even more rewarding than getting that perfect shot.”
Scientists say that seal pups don’t swim very well, which is the reason they hang back while their mothers hunt for food. It is normal for a mother seal to leave her pup alone on the beach for up to 24 hours while she feeds.
If the mother seal sees people or dogs near her pup when she returns from hunting, she may think it is unsafe to return, which could lead to devastating consequences for the baby.
Warnings from officials don’t always work when it comes to seals and selfies, which was the case in March when New England Aquarium reported that over the weekend of the 23rd and 24th large groups of beachgoers were stressing out young seals that had come ashore in Massachusetts to rest.
And the problem with people getting too close to seals for photos isn’t just in New England. On April 3, The Sacramento Bee in California reported that a woman was caught petting a baby seal for a picture to post online.
The San Francisco Bay Area’s Marine Mammal Center, headquartered in Sausalito, posted a warning about this behavior on Facebook. It said, in part, “You go home counting your likes on Insta for that once in a lifetime selfie. The abandoned pup slowly starves to death. Harsh, but reality.”
Stokes said in New Hampshire there was an abundance of young harp seals this winter because of good ice packs in the Arctic the previous year. Now with the harbor seal pups coming, they expect to have a very busy year.
The center’s marine mammal rescue team has already been called out 110 times in 2019. Stokes said most of these calls are for seals.
In 2018, the marine mammal rescue team responded to 298 calls for 104 live and 194 deceased animals. That includes 252 harbor seals, 20 gray seals, 12 harp seals, five unknown seal species, four harbor porpoises, one Altantic white-sided dolphin, two minke whales, one humpback whale and a pygmy sperm whale.
That is more than double the total number of response calls in 2017 and the result of an unusual mortality event for harbor and gray seals.
A phocine distemper virus was linked to the mass die-off. NOAA officials declared an unusual mortality event Aug. 31 after teams responded to more than 600 reports of dead harbor and gray seals. They said at the time the death toll could have been up to 1,000 because not all cases are reported, especially if the death occurs on private property.
Stokes said they were concerned about that spreading to harp seals in the area, but it did not seem to.
“Over the winter months we were very busy with live harp seals because we had a lot of them, but they were healthy,” Stokes said on Thursday.
Stokes’ team recovers, gathers data on and records photos of deceased animals to monitor causes of mortality that could pose health risks to marine mammal populations. They have partnered with the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab located at the University of New Hampshire to help perform necropsies.
People who see distressed or dead animals on shore in New Hampshire can call the Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal Rescue hotline at 603-997-9448.