Marine mammal network to the rescue! - Salish Current
April 22, 2024
Marine mammal network to the rescue!
Meghan Fenwick

Hunting adult females often drop off their young on the shoreline, where warmer shallow water helps regulate the pup’s body temperature. Beachgoers with good intentions can unknowingly harm the animals, mistaking them as distressed or injured. (WMMSN and WHS WRC)

April 22, 2024
Marine mammal network to the rescue!
Meghan Fenwick

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This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Whatcom Watch and is reprinted here in full under a republication agreement between Whatcom Watch and Salish Current.

Local and regional organizations provide emergency, longer-term recovery care

In November of 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to calls concerning a harbor porpoise. The adult male was seen struggling in shallow waters, where the species is rarely found. 

After assessing his condition and determining that his chance of survival was critically low if left untreated, he was transported to SR3, the only marine mammal hospital in the state.

SR3 is an acronym for Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, a nonprofit organization south of Seattle which opened its doors in 2021. SR3 was granted a permit by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to care for 11 species across the state, including seals, otters and dolphins. The harbor porpoise was the first to be cared for by a wildlife rehabilitation facility in the Pacific Northwest.

While SR3 also plays a part in stranding responses and ocean conservation research, situations like these are their mainstay. Other wildlife facilities do not always have the resources to care for marine mammals, especially a harbor porpoise which requires ample space. 

The porpoise, who was in SR3’s care for 12 days, required blood work, ultrasounds, radiographs and medications after staff determined a neurological condition was affecting his mobility. SR3’s veterinarians, animal husbandry technicians and volunteers joined forces with the Vancouver Aquarium and various wildlife experts across the West Coast.

“I was really struck by how the SR3 community came together,” said Kim Hickey, volunteer for SR3. “The harbor porpoise needed 24-hour monitoring, and seeing how everybody came together to walk around a pool around the clock in the dark and cold was very inspiring to me.”

Filling the gap

Executive director Casey McLean moved to Washington state in 2010. With a marine biology degree and vast experience as a veterinarian and wildlife expert across the country, she was shocked to learn that there were no facilities dedicated to marine mammal care. 

“I had worked in other marine animal hospitals, and I just thought it was a little silly to be in such an environmentally friendly region, yet we were letting marine animals suffer and die on beaches just because there was a lack of resources,” McLean said.

An average of 578 marine mammals wash up on Washington shores every year, according to a 2016 study by NOAA. A stranding can mean the animal was found deceased or alive, as long as it cannot move or survive without assistance. A more recent report in 2019 showed over 4,000 strandings along the West Coast, comparable to the 13-year average between 2006 and 2018. 

Each harbor seal has a unique pattern of white and grey spots. To tell pups apart in nature and captivity, organizations such as Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research and Whatcom Humane Society may use brightly colored, noninvasive and biodegradable tags. (WHS WRC)

Marine mammals play a vital role in their ecosystems, specific to each species and each habitat. Many are considered endangered or have spent time on the endangered species list. Some are prey for top predators like transient killer whales, or help balance fish populations as their predator. 

Harbor seals are the most abundant marine mammal in the Salish Sea. They eat over 60 types of fish, including key predators of salmon such as hake. In addition to their marine predators, stranded seals are threatened by dogs, eagles and coyotes. A seal pup’s mortality rate is about 50%. 

Locally, reports of abandoned or distressed marine mammals can be directed to the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network (WMMSN), a nonprofit volunteer organization permitted by NOAA to respond to strandings. The Whatcom network is just one piece of a national network organized under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

The stranding network can help determine whether a marine mammal is exhibiting natural behaviors. Volunteer staff ensure the animal’s safety by erecting barriers so the public can keep a safe distance, and monitoring the animal for up to 24 hours to determine whether it can return to the ocean. 

Before 2021, a stranded mammal might be sent to local wildlife centers such as PAWS Wildlife CenterWhatcom Humane Society or Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Some facilities are authorized only to hold marine mammals for 24 to 96 hours. In some cases, the only option was a 15-hour transit to the nearest marine mammal hospital in California, one of seven in that state. 

“People always say California has such a big coastline,” McLean said. “We have the same amount of coastline, ours is just all squished up in the Puget Sound. Mileage wise, we truly do have the same amount.”

Since opening in 2021, SR3 has rescued nine animals from Whatcom County, two from Skagit County and two from San Juan County. The majority of their patients come from Pierce and King County, close to their location in Des Moines. 

Local threats

At the Whatcom Humane Society, the marine mammal space, equipment, and personnel are separated from the rest of the wildlife department. One unique challenge of these patients is the possibility of spreading diseases to other wildlife, said Wildlife Manager Alysha Evans.

“It’s definitely one of those things where we have to always be prepared during the seasons when we heavily see marine mammals and have that plan in place,” Evans said. “It is something that we have to think about financially as well, because we want to make sure that we’re able to be responsible for all of our patients.”

The Whatcom Humane Society cares for a variety of animals across three locations for domestic, farm and wildlife species. This amounts to about 4,500 animals annually. Their most common marine patients are harbor seals. 

In Whatcom County, the harbor seal pupping season generally begins in May and ends in September. Adult hunting females often drop off their young on the shoreline, and the warmth of the sun and shallow waters helps the pup’s body temperature regulate. 

Sun-soaking harbor seals often get mistaken as distressed or injured. Just as the summer begins, Whatcom County beaches see more traffic from humans and seals simultaneously. 

“It’s pretty difficult in the summer season, there’s really no beaches that are private anymore. So people kind of hike and go all over, and it’s getting harder and harder for wild animals to find their own space,” Evans said.

Mother seals can leave their pups on beaches for several hours, after which local wildlife agencies may deem that the pup has been abandoned. 

Beachgoers with good intentions can unknowingly harm marine mammals. NOAA recommends staying at least 100 feet away. Human presence can discourage mother seals from retrieving their pups, and attempts to move, feed or photograph from a close distance and even pour water on seals are increasingly common and could be detrimental to the seals’ survival.

The humane society and SR3 report an increase in human interaction, creating a more harrowing experience for the animals as well as wildlife professionals and advocates. Marine patients arrive at these facilities in poor shape and in need of rehabilitation, and sometimes the situation was preventable. 

According to Evans, many wild animals arrive at the humane society hours or even days after they were initially found. State and federal laws require the public to bring distressed animals to a wildlife center within 24 hours of initial capture to receive care. The laws exclude marine mammals, which should not be approached under any circumstances. The first 24 hours are often critical for triage, and as that window closes, euthanasia becomes more likely.

“We view euthanasia as a gift, it’s something very positive or very thankful we’re able to end suffering and help these animals pass,” said Evans. “It can be really challenging when that euthanasia is because of a lack of respect for us or that animal by trying to care for it themselves or do something that they shouldn’t do.”

In any case, these organizations collect data to inform ocean conservation. On Nov. 25, 2023, the harbor porpoise was humanely euthanized. After days of steady progress, he took a turn for the worse and experienced multiple seizures. SR3’s team performed a necropsy, CT scans and an MRI, revealing a parasite in his inner ear. 

On the bright side

The ultimate goal is to return animals to their home and mitigate or reverse human disturbances. SR3 often invites their partners to the releases, records them and posts videos on their website and social media pages. When harbor seals move across land, it’s called “galumphing,” a clumsy way of waddling without legs. The seals galumph as quickly as they can to the ocean, sometimes knocking over camera equipment along the way.

It takes a village: Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research relies on volunteers to help with its work in caring for marine mammals. (SR3)

“It’s a great partnership, being able to promote camaraderie and reward all of the hard work, especially because it’s nonprofit and all-volunteer for the stranding network,” Evans said. “That’s just a great thing to collaborate on and see those animals go back out.”

Hickey, an SR3 volunteer since 2018, describes seal pups as feisty, playful and fun. Volunteers and staff at SR3 limit their contact and interaction with the patients as much as possible to ensure they are independent when released back into the wild. Pups can be observed from afar, however, and often bat their fins at each other much like cats and dogs. 

“I call marine mammals the gateway drug to caring about ocean conservation,” said McLean. “They’re cute, they have big eyeballs, and people want to help them. When you help them, you’re helping the rest of the ecosystem as well.”

Charismatic harbor seals may attract unwanted admirers, but that interest and compassion can be redirected toward broader conservation efforts. SR3 typically posts volunteer opportunities around March to prepare for pupping season. This year, SR3 hosted an orientation in late March to fill 50 positions. There is a minimum time commitment of three shifts a month, scheduled times, and training involved. 

Before the hospital was built, SR3 focused on research, entanglement and oil spill response, and community outreach. Hickey first helped build carts to haul seal pups in the event of an oil spill. Now she prefers the early morning shifts, and while they can be physically tiring, she feels energized and inspired afterward. Most of her work involves preparing and cleaning the hospital for the day, feeding seal pups and doing dishes.

“SR3 is a small but mighty organization, and they do a really great job of recognizing volunteers and making us feel part of the team,” said Hickey. “When I’m there I can help the staff members and make their day a little easier so that they can provide even more care to the animals. That direct contribution to that animal’s well-being is really important to me.”

How to help in big and small ways

  • Pack out what you pack in: Marine mammals can become entangled in or ingest plastic pollution and other litter. After a beachside bonfire, make sure to leave the site as clean or cleaner than when you found it. 
  • Call on experts: If you suspect a marine mammal is in danger, distressed or deceased, contact the Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Center at 360-966-8845. To find a number to call outside of Whatcom County, go to NOAA’s website. Remember that there is a large network of stranding response teams across the country. 
  • Keep pets leashed: While harbor seals are not known to be aggressive, they do have sharp teeth and survival instincts. Contact between a pet dog and seals, informally known as the dogs of the sea, is dangerous for both parties. 
  • Bring your binoculars: Stay at least 100 feet away from marine mammals. According to Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), if the animal turns to look at you, you are too close.
  • Donate and volunteer: Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research and other nonprofit wildlife organizations rely on private donations, grants and volunteer staff. The Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network is entirely volunteer-run. While there are no volunteer positions at the marine mammal department of the Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Center, there are opportunities to donate your time towards other animals.

See also: Vancouver Aquarium Wild Animal Rescue Team. [Also read: “To the rescue: saving lives, taking action on plastic trash in the Salish Sea,” Salish Current, Sept. 14, 2023]

By Meghan Fenwick

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