It’s been a busy summer for the Seacoast Science Center’s marine mammal rescue team.
There’s been a surge of late in the number of beached seals in need of rescue along New Hampshire’s coast.
Ashley Stokes manages the marine mammal rescue team, and she joined NHPR's Morning Edition.
Talk about what these past few weeks have been like for your team. What are you seeing?
We’ve seen a pretty large increase, both in really late June and then all through July, of harbor seals. So harbor seals give birth to their young mid-May through mid-June and believe it or not they're only with mom for three to four weeks and then they're completely independent. This is when we really start getting busy with both deceased animals that you know never quite caught on to how to forage on their own and didn't make it, which is of course goes back to the theory of natural selection - they're not all going to live. But also we've had a high number of weanlings, or animals that have are newly separated from mom and have gotten it a little bit they are struggling maybe. We're there to monitor them and help them out when needed so that the public is at a safe distance from the animal and that you know vice versa so that the animal is at a safe distance from the public.
Is this a regular kind of thing that every late spring and early summer you see this kind of tide of seals?
Yeah, so this is generally when we see you know our busiest months: July, August, September, and the beginning of October. But naturally that also correlates with the beach season, so we rely on members of the public to call in both these live and dead marine mammals so that we know they're out there. But this July has been busier than previous years, so that might be a testament just to the number of harbor seals that are out there. They may have had a higher pupping season but also we've had a lot of live ones that have been showing up on the beaches. And of course they pick areas that are easily accessible, so those are also the beaches that people want to be on. We want to make sure that we're out there to monitor them and get them to care if needed.
Do you see this year's surge as a good thing overall? How is that going to manifest itself as time goes on?
Sure. It's hard to say exactly what the increase is. It could be twofold. One, it could be a testament to the number of pups that are being born this year. But also we've done a lot of work the last couple of years spreading the word about marine mammal rescue and that these are federally protected animals and that they should be called in when they're being seen on the beaches even if they look healthy. I feel like we're also getting more calls than we used to get, and that may be a testament to you know the outreach work that we've done on the beaches.
Your team was formed in 2014. What have you been seeing trend-wise in those few years? Are you seeing the numbers of rescues go up? Are your services more needed now?
We've had a little bit of a fluctuation and we do expect that. We thought the average would be somewhere around 100 cases per year and that's a mix of live and dead. But in addition to New Hampshire we're also helping NOAA fisheries with northern Massachusetts as well. So naturally our numbers did go up a little bit. In 2014, which was kind of our inaugural year for running the program, we closed out the year with 73 cases. We had a big jump in 2015 at 146 cases and then it went down a little bit in 2016, we closed out the year with 126 cases, so a little bit less. And it looks like this year as of this morning we're at 76 cases. So we're a bit ahead of where we were in 2015.
What have you learned in the past three years? How has the rescue team evolved or changed?
So with the limited space in rehab facilities – and that's more than likely a testament to the population is rebounding and becoming healthy again for harbor seals - when rehab is full, it’s tough to tell the public that you know there are no options, we can't take this animal to rehab. So what we have been doing for the weanlings that are struggling a little bit is we started instituting a little bit of field triage. So if rehab is full and we have an animal for example on Hampton Beach on a Saturday in the summer that's not the best spot for trying to get some rest and figure out life on its own. So we do now step in and relocate the animal. We apply a flipper tag, so it's not a satellite tag but it is an identifying marker so if it shows up somewhere else we kind of know that animals back story. But we're also giving them some fluids and some sugar, so some dextrose to kind of help perk them up a little bit and hopefully get them through the struggle that they're seeing.