A harp seal rests in a tank at Marine Mammals of Maine rehabilitation facility in Harpswell. People encountering seal pups are warned to stay away, as the encounter stresses the animals. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Last week, I wrote the sad story of a bald eagle that we found dead on our shore after several days of watching its odd behavior. The eagle likely died of avian flu which has been impacting backyard flocks as well as wild birds in Maine. Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) is a strain of flu that is most common in birds and can have various degrees of severity, much as it does in humans, ranging from a mild cough to a high fever, and can sometimes result in death. As its name implies, it is very contagious, so the cases in Maine are being taken very seriously.

Susan Olcott

One of the things that I learned when researching HPAI was that there have been no known cases of transmission from birds to humans in Maine. But, this week, I learned that HPAI can be transmitted to marine mammals and has been recently impacting Maine’s seal population. The group Marine Mammals of Maine (MMoME) is a non-profit dedicated to responding to seal and other marine mammal strandings as well as rehabilitating sick or injured animals at their Brunswick facility. Marine Mammals of Maine is one of three marine mammal centers in the Northeast and the only one in Maine.

Recently, MMoME put out an update about avian influenza and its impacts on seals. Starting in June, there was an increase in the number of seal mortalities reported. Upon testing, the National Veterinary Services Laboratory of USDA confirmed a positive H5N1 HPAI result from a gray seal. Following that, there have been several other seal deaths attributed to HPAI. They report that mortalities for gray and harbor seals are three times higher than normal for this time of year. As a result, MMoME has been working with NOAA Fisheries and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society as well as other state and federal partners to study the problem.

The biggest message that MMoME wants to share is to inform people about what to do if they come across a seal that is dead or in distress. A couple of years ago, I wrote about seal strandings during pupping season and some of the misperceptions that people have about how to help them. That was based on another personal experience of finding a group of people gathered around a seal pup on the beach in Southern Maine. After a phone call to MMoME to let them know about the seal and to ask what to do, we drew a wide boundary around the seal and made a sign letting people know to leave the seal alone. Getting too close to a seal pup can cause it stress and affect its ability to recover or return to the water. The recommendation is to stay at least 150 feet away. We also learned that the seal might be completely fine and just be resting after a long day of swimming and fishing. The contact at MMoME also reminded me that seals are mammals and can stay out of the water for long periods of time, so we didn’t need to worry about keeping it wet.

A beached seal pup is a bit of a different situation than one that might have avian influenza, however. While the CDC has assessed the health risk posed by avian flu to humans to be low, there is still the concern of transmission both to people and to other animals including pets. The same protocols apply to HPAI as did to the outbreak of phocine distemper virus in 2018 when there were also unusually high numbers of seal mortalities. You should not touch or approach the animal and should, instead, contact the Maine State Reporting Hotline at 1-800-532-9551. This is the number to call both for strandings and mortalities. They can assess the situation and determine the best response.

It is also worth looking at the work of MMoME if you are interested in volunteering or contributing to the organization. You can sign up for their newsletter to stay informed about this situation as well as other information about marine mammals in Maine (mmome.org).

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