Few things are more heartwarming than seeing a juvenile seal, with its big, pleading eyes, released back into the ocean after being rescued and rehabilitated. The Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation program at the University of New England has been doing this work for the past 13 years, with regular seal releases that were open to the public. Students learned how to care for all sorts of marine creatures at the facility as they worked toward related degrees in marine biology or the like. Meanwhile, it gave the community a tangible connection with the university, welcoming volunteers and spreading the word about how to properly report injured sea animals.

Tuesday evening was the last time spectators could see one of these releases, as the MARC program is set to close its doors and is no longer accepting new animals. The decision to close is part of UNE’s most recent strategic planning process, according to Dr. Ed Bilsky, a UNE professor and vice president of research and scholarship, and a result of “developing new undergraduate marine sciences programs to meet growing demand and career opportunities.”

The university is shifting to focus more on fisheries studies and will introduce a degree in ocean studies and marine affairs. As well, Bilsky has said the gray and harbor seal populations on which MARC focused are no longer threatened.

Injured and abandoned sea turtles, seals and other marine life will still be found, however, and will now require transport to rehabilitation facilities in Boston and Connecticut, as MARC was the only local option. There’s no doubt that more injured animals will die without the MARC facility available, especially considering that the waters of southern Maine are a birthing ground for harbor seals.

The university’s focus, however, is on educating students, not on public service, so if the MARC program does not fit into UNE’s future goals, it’s not a defensible expenditure. Clearly, the university’s leaders have determined that the MARC program is not the best use of its resources for educating students, and it’s an understandable, if unfortunate, decision.

Expense, however is not the reason officials are citing, and it’s difficult for the public ”“ and many students ”“ to understand how this facility is not in line with the university’s degree programs. Many students and others are trying to fight the closure of MARC, saying it benefits student learning and is in a perfect location to save the lives of injured, sickly or abandoned mammals of the sea. The university offers Marine Sciences degrees in marine biology and oceanography, as well as Ocean Studies and Marine Affairs, Aquaculture and Aquarium Sciences, among other degrees and minors such as “animal behavior,” that one could reasonably see incorporating learning that can be gathered through an on-site rehabilitation program.

Despite what we see as a clear value in having this facility on campus, it seems unlikely that the university will reverse its strategic planning process, which was 18 months in the making, to respond to public outcry.

What is most upsetting, however, is the manner in which UNE announced this decision to those whose rescue efforts depend on the facility. Marine Mammals of Maine, a rescue organization, has sent injured seal pups to MARC since 2011, when the state lost federal funding for marine animal rescue services, according to volunteer Lynda Doughty. Since that time, they’ve had about 20 animals rehabilitating at MARC at any given time, while others were monitored in their natural environments. Doughty said the group only learned of the closure decision when it was publicly announced, on May 23 ”“ just a day before the biggest annual rescue effort of Memorial Day weekend. As of that announcement, no new animals were being accepted, the release stated, so the rescue group essentially had no notice.

Certainly, UNE can’t be expected to foot the bill for a regional rehabilitation facility forever, but it was irresponsible of the university not to provide a few month’s notice to the rescue organizations that used the facility so they could prepare and make other arrangements. Change may be necessary for the university to cut back on costs and refocus its educational efforts, but it should have been done with more respect for those who are impacted most.

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Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, ext. 322, or via email at [email protected]