(Photo courtesy Seal Sitters)
By Mary Sheely
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
It’s the season for lots of recreational fishing along West Seattle’s shores. And it’s also the season for lots of harbor seal pups.
That was evident last Saturday night at Lincoln Park, when a fisherman unexpectedly found a harbor seal pup at the end of his line. The drama was resolved quickly; with help from two onlookers, the hook was quickly removed and the pup set free.
Events unfolded too fast last for anyone to make a call, but when a marine mammal is in distress or a seal is spotted, these are the important numbers to know:
To report a seal on the beach in West Seattle: 206-905-SEAL (7325)
For all other reports, the NOAA Stranding Hotline: 800-853-1964 (monitored 24 hours)
If a marine mammal is being harassed or harmed, the NOAA Enforcement Hotline: 800-853-1964
If there is imminent danger, call 911
After the pup was released, conversation onshore continued — what exactly is the best thing to do in that situation?
According to Kristin Wilkinson, Marine Mammal Stranding Specialist with NOAA Fisheries, the best thing to do is exactly what the fishermen involved did.
“The animal was most likely a harbor seal pup that has recently been weaned — harbor seal pups are with Mom for four to six weeks, are weaned, and are then on their own,” Wilkinson says. “In this situation, the correct action was taken as long as the people involved took safety measures to protect themselves. There is an exemption in the Marine Mammal Protection Act for cases such as these.”
She quotes this relevant passage from the MMPA:
(d) Good Samaritan exemption
It shall not be a violation of this chapter to take a marine mammal if —
(1) such taking is imminently necessary to avoid serious injury, additional injury, or death to a marine mammal entangled in fishing gear or debris;
(2) reasonable care is taken to ensure the safe release of the marine mammal, taking into consideration the equipment, expertise, and conditions at hand;
(3) reasonable care is exercised to prevent any further injury to the marine mammal
Brenda Peterson, spokesperson for West Seattle-based Seal Sitters, agrees. “Even though people aren’t supposed to handle the seals, that was a dangerous situation for the pup,” she says. “It sounds like they handled it well. The concern would be if the pup swallowed the hook — then you’d have a seal with internal injuries slowly dying. We’ve seen seals heal from propeller blade slashes, so if they got it all completely out and there was no fishing line that was ingested, then that seal probably has a pretty good chance of survival.”
“If it was an adult harbor seal or sea lion, the best thing would be to cut that line as short as possible,” Wilkinson says. “Surprisingly, fish hooks will usually work themselves out fairly quickly. They’re fairly lightweight, and being submerged in salt water can cause them to erode in a series of days.”
How rare is it to snag a seal pup with a hook? Not as rare as you might expect.
Wilkinson recounts a few weeks in 2007 at the Edmonds fishing pier, where a harbor seal pup was repeatedly hooked by fishermen — she estimates at least six times. Though NOAA wanted to relocate the pup to a safer location, “the animal was not hauling onto the beach and Edmonds is an extremely high pier,” she explains. “A capture of an animal in the water is much more difficult.”
For three weeks, Wilkinson visited the pier each morning, hoping to spot the pup on the beach. “Of course, I go out of town, and the seal hauls out for the first time,” she says. The pup was rescued by PAWS, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, and later released a safe distance away.
“When people feed marine mammals, even when it’s just spare bait, they’re going to hang around,” she explains.
“Right now we have seals on our beaches in West Seattle,” says Peterson, who in fact was watching the seal pup pictured above as she spoke. “We have seen three seals so far this week. The one I’m looking at now is about three-and-a-half feet long and really doesn’t like the sound of garbage trucks and crows—or cell phones ringing,” she laughs.
She continues, “Seal pups have gone from being these big blubber babies, drinking milk fat from their mothers each day, and now suddenly they’re fishing on their own. They have to learn coordination — fish are fast — and it’s not easy. This one is exhausted and just kind of lying there like, ‘Finally, I can sleep’.”
Of course, the location is kept a secret to keep onlookers at bay, and the harbor seal is closely monitored. “We have about three Seal Sitters here and we’re thrilled,” Peterson says. She and Wilkinson just want the public to be aware that there are seal pups about, and to remind us not to interfere unless absolutely necessary. That includes keeping dogs leashed, says Peterson.
“The harbor seal population in Washington State is actually extremely healthy,” says Wilkinson. “We have approximately 15,000 in the inland waters of Washington State. About 50 percent don’t survive their first year, but it’s actually a very normal percentage — it is at carrying capacity, which means that nature can only keep up so much with X amount of animals.
“But we do our best to monitor the animals on the beach,” she says. “We don’t want them to suffer.”
To learn more about the seal population, Wilkinson suggests the article “Sharing the Shore with Harbor Seal Pups in the Pacific Northwest.”
The pup in the photos accompanying this story, provided by Seal Sitters, was watched by them 8 am-3 pm last Wednesday, until, as Brenda Peterson put it, “the very plump and healthy pup swam back into the water.” The Seal Sitters website at sealsitters.org also has lots of information about seals and what to do if you see them.