Central PugetSound Marine Mammal Stranding Network

 
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Sleeping seal pup, photo by Sandy Dubpernell
Sleeping seal pup, photo by Sandy Dubpernell

July and August is harbor seal pup birthing season in Central Puget Sound. So far, our Stranding Network has received over 90 reports of “abandoned” seal pups on the beach. We employ various means to educate the public that these newborn pups have not been abandoned, merely left in a “safe place” by mom while she goes out to sea to feed. She will return to nurse her pup when there are no people around. Soon the pup will be strong enough to go out to sea with her.

Our volunteers on the beach post flyers, hand out brochures and advise people that keeping their distance and not disturbing the pup is its best chance for survival.  Other volunteers man the phone and emails and answer questions posed by the reporting parties. Information is published in local newspapers and there is a complete “pup story” on our website.

Our islands attract many thousands of visitors each year from states with no ocean frontage, so educating these visitors about seal pups and all of our marine mammals is an ongoing project all year round. 

Harbor seals (and all marine mammals) are protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Federal marine mammal regulations prohibit harassing seals to reduce human disturbance of important life processes. Don't Touch Seal Pups! The best thing you can do is to leave the animal alone  it's best chance for survival is in the wild.

For more information about harbor seal pups in Washington State please read NOAA Fisheries excellent publication: "Share the Shore with Harbor Seal Pups".   

Healthy seal pup near ferry, by Sandy Dubpernell
Healthy seal pup near ferry, by Sandy Dubpernell
Young seal pup, by Sandy Dubpernell
Young seal pup, by Sandy Dubpernell
Graph of 2014 Harbor Seal Calls for CPSMMSN
Graph of 2014 Harbor Seal Calls for CPSMMSN

Links:

Ellie the Elephant Seal and pup Ellison, Jill Hein
Ellie the Elephant Seal and pup Ellison, Jill Hein

The past few months have brought our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network a few pleasant surprises! We had our first (as far as we know) elephant seal pup born on Whidbey Island in March, and at least one other pup has appeared in May.The only other elephant seal pup we have had reported in the past was a young pup at Ft. Casey State Park in 2008, that only stayed on the beach for a few hours, so we believe this is the first documented elephant seal pup BORN on Whidbey Island - exciting!

March 19th, a female elephant seal who has returned to her molting site on Mutiny Bay for five or six years in a row  (so well known to local residents that she was named “Ellie”), showed up early this year, and with a cute little black pup! 

Only a single pup is produced at a time, weighing up to about 65 lbs. The pup will molt the black coat and replace it with a silver coat similar to its Mom’s starting at around four weeks. Ellie nursed the pup until he got nice and chubby, tripling his weight (see photos below!), then left the pup around the first week of May. The pup remained on the beach for another few weeks and now appears to have left the beach to learn to feed on his own.

This has been a ‘literature perfect’ chronicle watching “Ellie” and her son “Ellison” do exactly what they were expected to do. When Ellie left town, Ellison was a very plump pup, left all alone. After a few weeks he started venturing into the water to test the food supply. He has been on the move, changing his black coat to silver, and is looking very dapper and we believe he has moved on.

Another young elephant seal appeared on a beach further north on West Whidbey Island at Lagoon Pt, on May 20th - days after Ellison left Mutiny Bay - but it appears to be a younger pup than Ellison so we don't believe it is him showing up on a new beach, but another recently born and weaned elephant seal pup.

Ellie, as an adult can weigh up to 1700 lbs. Her pup can eventually weigh as much as 5000 lbs and will develop a large “proboscis” with age. He will also develop a chest shield of keratinized skin as protection against injury when they fight with other males for breeding territory.
 
Once a very rare sight in our region, Elephant seals are being seen more often on Whidey Island beaches, and the reports our Stranding Network responds to help us monitor the abundance of this species. The increased sightings we have been seeing supports recent research which shows the California breeding stock of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) has doubled in abundance from 1987 to 2006 and individuals are frequently observed in the Salish Sea year-round (Carretta et al. 2011). It is exciting to collect data through our CPSMMSN to assist elephant seal  researchers, and very fun to see these darling elephant seal pups on our beaches in the spring!

Also of note, Stephanie Norman, DVM, MS, PhD, the marine mammal vet on our CPSMMSN team, attended the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Regional Meeting in March to represent our work at this NOAA Fisheries sponsored meeting. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Regional Meeting took place to bring together marine mammal stranding responders and health researchers who cover the nearshore waters and shorelines of Washington, Oregon, and California, representing a total of 31 organizations. See attached photo of the posters she brought to the meeting - one about the work the CPSMMSN does, the other on our B Cell Lymphoma porpoise case.

Thanks to YOU, our supporters, for making all of this possible, and enabling us to contine our volunteer response efforts during the upcoming busy stranding season ~

Ellie and pup Ellison, April 2nd, Jill Hein
Ellie and pup Ellison, April 2nd, Jill Hein
Ellison the Elephant seal pup, May 5, the Wegners
Ellison the Elephant seal pup, May 5, the Wegners
Weaned, chubby Ellison! Apr. 8, Sandy Dubpernell
Weaned, chubby Ellison! Apr. 8, Sandy Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S.Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S.Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S Dubpernell

Links:


Attachments:
Harbor seal response chart 2014
Harbor seal response chart 2014

As we begin preparation for our busy spring and summer stranding season, we have been told that the NOAA Fisheries budget for the entire Marine Mammal Stranding Program nationwide is slated for even more substantial cuts again this year, including money for staffing of the Prescott Marine Mammal Stranding Program. Recent budget cuts have already hurt our program, and these proposed cuts will further impact our ability to respond/investigate many strandings as well as curtail our research project begun several years ago to determine comparative levels of certain toxins in our local marine mammals.

All told, we received a total of 17 harbor porpoise calls in 2014.

We were able to collect nine carcasses for necropsy.  The others were either too scavenged or decomposed to be of value or floated out to sea before they could be collected. Additional testing for the presence of cancer causing viruses in the harbor porpoise found to have lymphoma (reported to GlobalGiving last November) is being considered if funds can be found. The information gathered from Harbor porpoise necropsies not only provides up to date information on the health of our Harbor porpoise population, but also translates into how the ocean habitat is doing and what toxins are increasing, which is valuable information that also relates to our endangered Southern Resident orcas who share the same waters and eat a similar diet.

The attached chart “Harbor Seals - 2014” shows the number of harbor seals reported to our stranding network. July through September is our busiest season for birthing and weaning of pups.  We provide extensive education to the public on how to share our island with harbor seals and to make people aware of the necessity to avoid disturbing newborn pups and their nursing mothers. Nevertheless, harbor seals still suffer an approximately 50% mortality in their first year of life due mainly to human interference and predation by transient (meat-eating) orcas.  

Despite funding cuts to NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding program, the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network continues to respond to stranded porpoise, seal pups, molting elephant seals (see photo), and the occasional Gray whale or sea lion stranding, thanks to supporters like YOU! And we continue to provide public education via our website and Orca Network's Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island, WA, where many of our marine mammal specimens are on display.

We truly appreciate the donations received via GlobalGiving that enable us to support the work of our veterinarians and numerous volunteers investigating why our marine mammals are dying in the Salish Sea.

Our sincere thanks, we truly could not do it without your support!

Molting Elephant seal, Whidbey Island, WA
Molting Elephant seal, Whidbey Island, WA

Links:

Fisheries Interaction - net marks on Porpoise
Fisheries Interaction - net marks on Porpoise

The Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network has continued to respond to a higher number of Harbor Porpoise strandings than we have experienced at any time in our past - as of November, we have had 13 dead Harbor porpoise strand in Island and Skagit counties, four in the quarter since our last project report.

We conducted two necropsies in September, one of which was confirmed to be a fisheries interaction. Net markings were detected on the face and rostrum of the porpoise, and the necropsy found no sign of disease or ill health, though when we cut into the skull, hemorrhaging was found at the base of the skull and top vertebrae, likely from the porpoise's struggle when it became entangled in the net. Besides being able to document a fisheries interaction, this rare healthy specimen will enable us to do testing on different tissues and organs to compare to the usual diseased porpoise that we necropsy. We are awaiting results of tests on additional necropsies performed this past month, and have two more porpoise in freezer storage awaiting necropsy by our team.

And speaking of our team - we have had some changes this year, as we say farewell to Matt Klope who has been one of our CPSMMSN’s principle investigators for many many years. Regretfully, Matt has resigned that position to make more time for his family and growing taxidermy business, and will no longer be involved with most of our strandings/necropsies - however will come and help out as his schedule allows when we have whales or large pinnipeds on the beach. 
THANK YOU MATT—for all you have done with CPSMMSN!

To replace Matt on our necropsy and stranding team, we have been very lucky to find Dr. Barry Rickman VMD, PhD, DACVP. Barry is a veterinary pathology (Sound Vet Path) specialist and has recently joined our team. He resides in Edmonds—and has a home pet care and euthanasia business, and is a great part of our necropsy and pathology team — we’re very happy to have him on board. Barry has put together a great poster about our porpoise with B-cell Lymphoma,which was presented at the regional Marine Mammal Stranding workshop, and he and Stephanie Norman are working on publication of a paper on this case.

It is only through the help of YOUR donations that the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network can continue to keep up with stranding response and investigation in the Salish Sea, and we truly appreciate your support.
 

Dr
Dr's Norman & Rickman - porpoise necropsy
B-cell Lymphoma Porpoise scientific poster
B-cell Lymphoma Porpoise scientific poster

Links:

Seal pup near Coupeville, WA by Sandra Dubpernell
Seal pup near Coupeville, WA by Sandra Dubpernell

Summer is the busy season for our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and this year has been no exception! We have been busy fielding calls about Harbor seals nearly every day, as this is the "pupping" season when Harbor seal pups are born. Mom often leaves her pup on a beach unattended while she goes off in search of food, and this provides the pup a chance to rest and warm up on the beach while mom is gone. Unfortunately, this happens at a time when our beaches are full of humans who flock to our many miles of beaches to rest and warm up, as well.

Many well-intentioned but uninformed citizens want to help what might appear to be an abandoned, helpless little seal pup on the beach, but when humans interfere, the ending is rarely good for the pup. Pups have not yet developed a scare response to humans, but their mothers have. So if people are crowding around a pup on the beach, the mom won't come back for it until they are gone. People often think the pup needs to be fed or have water poured on it, but the best and only thing to do if you see a seal pup on the beach is to LEAVE IT ALONE and leave the area so mom will come back.

Good information can be found in NOAA Fisheries great publication "Sharing the Shore with Harbor Seal Pups" - if you live in Washington State or other coastal states where seals are found, we encourage you to read and share this information. One of the most important functions of our Stranding Network is to educate the public about marine mammals, and what to do if you find a live or dead stranded marine mammal on the beach. We have developed a Rack Card about seal pups that is distributed through our volunteers, at events, and at our Langley Whale Center, and we have several educational displays to help educate the public about seal pups.

The Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network has also been responding to a larger than usual number of Harbor Porpoise this year as well - so far nine have been reported and/or responded to in our stranding region. In recent years the entire region has seen an increase in the number of Harbor porpoise deaths, and researchers are now saying the increase is due to the increase in the population of Harbor porpoise - so that is GOOD news!

Good news or bad, the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network is here to help the public learn about our marine mammals, and to investigate marine mammal strandings to provide information that helps researchers and agencies understand the health of our ocean ecosystems and their inhabitants. Without your support, we would not exist - our heartfelt thanks goes to each and every one of you who donates to this important Orca Network project!

Seal pup near Freeland, WA by Sandra Dubpernell
Seal pup near Freeland, WA by Sandra Dubpernell

Links:


Attachments:

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Organization

Orca Network

Freeland, WA, United States
http://www.orcanetwork.org

Project Leader

Susan Berta

Greenbank, WA United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Central PugetSound Marine Mammal Stranding Network