PORT TOWNSEND — Outdoor recreation is good for people, but it can be bad for marine animals if people do not know how to relate to them properly, experts said.
More people spending time outside means more potential for human and animal interaction, which has led to unnecessary deaths of marine animals, particularly harbor seal pups, according to those who participated in an online panel Thursday.
“We have had more calls of people interacting with stranded seal pups in the past month than in the last two years combined,” said Betsy Carlson, citizen science coordinator for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
Carlson was among those who spoke on the panel hosted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The panel discussed how people can recreate responsibly and protect marine wildlife.
Other panelists noted that a lot of the time these interactions with wildlife are unintentional, such as a boater coming upon a pod of orcas, or a citizen who thinks they may be helping an animal that appears to be in distress.
“A lot of times these cases are done by people who really are doing it with a warm heart. They think that they are doing a good thing,” said Capt. Alan Myers, a law enforcement official with Fish and Wildlife, Region 4.
Carlson told about a recent incident regarding a harbor seal pup that exemplified Myers’ comment.
On July 19, beach revelers at North Beach County Park, just outside Fort Worden in Port Townsend, came across a harbor seal pup that appeared to be abandoned by its mother.
“We got a call that someone had very carefully placed this pup in a big plastic bin and filled it with water, which in some ways is almost like torture for a stranded pup, Carlson said.
“It couldn’t get back to the water. It was in the water, in a plastic bin, and because these animals need to breathe air, it couldn’t even lie down and rest.”
Carlson said the pup did turn out to be very ill and had sustained head wounds. It ultimately was euthanized.
“This is one of three calls we have received in the past three weeks of people actually picking up these pups and putting them into vehicles or bins,” Carlson said.
“In one case, they took a pup to a vet to try and take care of it. In two of the three cases, these pups have died on their own or been euthanized because of the problems they were having.”
Carlson also said that, while it’s great people are able to be out on beaches, she encourages people to give animals space. In the case of seal pups, she said to give them a chance for their mothers to return for them.
“Mom won’t come back if there are too many people around,” Carlson said. “People should also keep their pets away, too.”
“I know people are doing this because they care, but they need to have the information to know the best way to care for them.”
Panelist Diane Lambourn, a marine mammal biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained what happens when people and dogs get too close to seal pups.
“Any type of disturbance, harbor seal moms are very shy and wary, they do not like to be on land; they are uncomfortable on land if they perceive that there is a disturbance,” Lambourn said.
“They tend to go into the water and may end up leaving their pups behind.
“The presence of people and dogs, or any type of thing that is a perceived threat to a harbor seal, harbor seals will not come back for their babies until that perceived threat is gone.”
Lambourn added the connection between harbor seal moms and newborn pups in the first 30 minutes of their life is crucial and encourages people to stay away from nursery sites during pupping season, which is when most separations occur.
“It is really important for harbor seals and their babies to bond,” Lambourn said. “If the mom and the pup cannot bond within that first half an hour, that is the time when we do see separation, because mom doesn’t know who that baby is.”
State law requires people to stay at least 100 yards away from seal pups, both while in the water and on the shore.
Picking up a seal pup is a violation of the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. People who do so can be investigated and cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.