BIDDEFORD — Memorial Day weekend is usually the busiest period for rescuing harbor seal pups, said Lynda Doughty, with the rescue organization Marine Mammals of Maine, or MMoMe.

Doughty said her group was really scrambling this Memorial Day weekend because it wasn’t until the Friday before that she, along with the rest of the public, learned in a press release that the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation, or MARC, program, which has been rehabilitating rescued seals and other marine animals since 2001, was closing its doors and not accepting new animals.

On May 23, a university press release notified the public that UNE would “no longer rehabilitate marine mammals,” as a result of “developing new undergraduate marine sciences programs to meet growing demand and career opportunities.”

“It was pretty devastating,” said Doughty when she and others in her group read the release. “We asked ourselves, ”˜What are we going to do?’”

It would have been helpful if UNE had given MMoMe advance warning, she said, “a transition plan would have been nice.”

MMoMe formed in 2011 when the state lost federal funding to perform marine animal rescue services.

The decision to close MARC was made during a strategic planning process, said Dr. Ed Bilsky, a UNE professor and vice president of research and scholarship.

During that process, “we looked where there are new challenges and new opportunities,” he said. “When confronted with challenges, you have to make choices.”

UNE plans to repurpose the MARC facility for other functions within the Marine Science Center, he said.

While Doughty said she recognizes that UNE changed its focus, “I don’t think they realize how heavily we needed their service.”

In addition, she said, UNE said it was closing MARC because through that facility’s efforts, the seal population has rebounded.

However, said Doughty, the population was never threatened, the facility was important in saving lives of seals pups that were stranded and became sickly, often as a result of human disturbance.

With the closing of the Biddeford facility, Doughty said, the two closest rehabilitation centers are the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Mass. and the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.

Since May 5, she said, MMoMe has rescued 44 harbor seal pups. A number of these are simply monitored, but about half need the resources of a rehabilitation center.

Normally, she said, there would be 20-25 animals at MARC. The Biddeford facility was located in an ideal spot, she said.

“We have the main area where pups are being born,” said Doughty.

Most harbor seals are born in the ocean waters off of southern Maine.

Without that facility, only 11 of the pups found spaces at the two other rehab centers.

Doughty said she believes because of the distance of the travel to the Massachusetts and Connecticut facilities, and other factors, some seals died that wouldn’t have if MARC was open.

If more pups are rescued and need rehabilitation in the coming months, there could be a significant problem, she said.

Between the two rehab centers, there are only two remaining spots, and those could be used by other rescue services.

If there is no space for rescued seals that need help, said Doughty, we’ll “either let nature take its course or humanely euthanize them.”

Seal rescuers are not the only ones upset that MARC is closed. A Facebook page to save MARC has been created by students.

In a description of the purpose of the page, it says it was created to “unite those who are angered and outraged by the University of New England’s short-sighted decision” and who want “to restore funding to the MARC.”

Ideally, students and other supporters would like to save the program. Another alternative is to get university support to open a new facility with other funders or partners.

There is also an online petition drive asking UNE President Danielle Ripich to save MARC. Some of the students who have signed the petition also wrote statements online.

“I am a marine science major with an animal behavior minor; my hope is to go to vet school after I graduate and become a marine vet to help take care of marine mammals similarly like what MARC does,” stated Emily Krochin. “It makes me disappointed to see them close.”

“It’s a huge part of UNE,” wrote Emmery Bates. “It stands out and is helping the community as well as educating the student(s) and providing an experience unavailable at most schools. My family always comes up to UNE, and one of the first things they ask is, ”˜Can we see the seals?’”

“MARC was the main reason I chose to come to the University of New England,” said Kelly Watson, “to get hands-on experience with the animals, have research opportunities and help save animals I am passionate about. Closing down the program will not only be hurting the seals and sea turtles that will now not have the help they need to survive, but hurting the students and faculty of UNE as well as the community around MARC.”

Also disappointed by the closure of MARC is the former program director Keith Matassa. He resigned last year to take a position as executive director of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, Calif. PMMC does work similar to MARC.

MARC was not only helpful to seals, he said but also, “We gave (students) a lot of experiences.”

In addition, said Matassa, the facility was built “to look at diseases and look at what was happening with the environment.”

“You can’t fault the university for deciding to what they want to do,” he said, but added that he’s sad the program is closing.

“It was a cool place,” said Matassa.

Doughty said her organization is looking at other solutions of where to bring rescued marine animals that need rehabilitation. Even if funds could be found to build a new facility, it would take time, she said.

MARC’s last seal release will be Tuesday.

— Staff Writer Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 324 or [email protected]

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