Sound Off: Please leave the seal pups alone

By Susan Berta

It is once again seal pupping season in Puget Sound, and the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network asks everyone on our beaches to follow the regulations regarding seals and seal pups on the beach - give them plenty of space and leave them alone!

This year pupping season began early, with our first report of a premature seal pup on May 30. We have already responded to a dozen seal pups in our area, with nearly half of them being premature pups with a white “Lanugo” coat.

If you see a seal pup on the beach, please contact the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-ORCANET or 360-678-3765, and we will send a volunteer out to assess the situation, post signs, and observe the pup. We urge you to follow the following guidelines from the National Marine Fisheries Service “Sharing the Shore with Harbor Seal Pups in the Pacific Northwest,” www.nwr.noaa.gov/mmammals/pinnipeds/harbor.htm.

Harbor seals rest out of the water (haul-out) for several hours every day to regulate body temperature, interact with each other, and sleep. Harbor seals are vulnerable on land and are therefore wary of being approached while out of the water. Some seals, however, may tolerate activity close by. The most frequently reported encounters with seals out of the water involve pups that are too young to have developed protective wariness (escape response).

Pups are born in the spring and summer and the timing of the peak birth period varies geographically, with pups in the San Juan Islands and eastern bays of Puget Sound born from late June through August and southern Puget Sound from mid-July through September. The majority of pups are born at protected haul-out sites which are called rookeries, but a female may give birth anywhere that there is easy access to the water’s edge.

Nursing pups remain with their mothers for about 4 to 6 weeks and then are weaned to forage and survive on their own. A nursing pup may triple its birth weight by the time it is weaned and uses its stored fat reserves as it learns to feed on its own.

Up to 50 percent of the pups born will not survive the first year of life. Contributing factors to pup mortality include premature birth, predation by wild predators or domestic dogs, infection, disease, dehydration or starvation.

Harbor seals are less mobile and therefore more vulnerable to disturbance or predation while out of the water. Adult seals are more wary and escape to the water more quickly than pups. Females will flee to the water if disturbed or approached and may leave their pups behind.

Although the percentage of successful female/pup reunions has not been quantified, anecdotal reports indicate that pups have successfully reunited up to 48 hours after separation. A female seal is more likely to return to reclaim her pup once the disturbance near the pup goes away. If activity continues near the pup, the female may eventually give up trying to return. A nursing pup that is separated from its mother will not survive.

Things you can do to promote responsible wildlife viewing:

* If you see a seal on the beach, give it room. The NMFS marine mammal viewing guidelines recommend a minimum approach distance of 100 yards. The approach limitation will minimize the potential for disturbing a resting animal and/or reduce stress for an animal that may be recovering from illness or injury.

* Observe from a distance using binoculars or a spotting scope if you want to see the animal “close up.”

* Keep pets away. Baby seals can easily fall prey to dogs. Older seals may bite in self defense. Dogs are naturally curious about other animals in their environment. To avoid a possibly injurious interaction, dogs should leashed and kept away from seals on the beach. Some diseases are infectious to both dogs and seals. People may also be at risk if they come into direct contact with an infected animal.

* Share Information. If the beach is regularly patrolled or maintained by a local agency, alert them to the presence of the animal so that they can check on it periodically to determine if there is a need to post informational signs or to intervene in some way (for Central Puget Sound, call the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-ORCANET or 360-678-3765).

A minimum undisturbed observation period of 24 to 48 hours is recommended to determine whether the pup is being attended by a female. Signs of an attendant female would include sightings of one or more seas in the water nearby; tracks near the pup; movement of the pup up or down the beach, or in and out of the water.

* Advise neighbors of the animal’s presence, note its location and when it was first observed.

* Remind others that seal pups need to use shoreline habitat to warm up (do not pour water on seal pups) and to rest (do not handle, cover or attempt to feed seal pups).

*Feeding, or baiting seals in the wild is a form of harassment and is harmful. Seals that are fed by humans quickly learn to seek humans for feeding opportunities (the next dead fish they find may have a hook in it).

If the pup has been unattended for 48 hours, or is clearly injured, contact the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-ORCANET or 360-678-3451, or NMFS a 1-206-526-6733.

*Report Harassment. Seals are federally protected from harassment and capture by the public. If you observe incidents of people or pets tormenting, disturbing or attempting to remove a seal from the beach, contact the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline (1-800-853-1964) to report a violation.

Susan Berta is co-founder of the Orca Network in Greenbank.

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