BOSTON — Federal scientists say the Northeast’s harbor seal pupping season is starting two months early and they’re urging people to be cautious when they see the young animals.
Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say harbor seals tend to give birth in May and June on rocky islands, ledges or sandy beaches along the coast. But this year, seal pup sightings were reported in March.
April is the earliest previous time that harbor seal pups have been reported in the region, and three March pups were seen in Gloucester, Plymouth, and in Wells, Maine.
Researchers can’t explain why the season is early this year.
But they say people encountering the animals should stay away. They say the animals may look cute, but they’re still wild and could bite or spread disease. They also might abandon their pups to flee an approaching dog or human.
It’s against the law to handle or interact with the seals.
Harbor seals found from Canada to New Jersey are one population, with pupping occurring mostly along the coast of Maine, said Gordon Waring, a marine mammal biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, adding that there are two large “haul outs” on rocky ledges off Cape Ann.
Waring said he could not estimate the number of harbor seals because no abundance survey has been done since 2001, when the biomass was estimated at 100,000. “That data is too old to be useful,” Waring said.
“Harbor seals are carnivorous generalists,” according to Macalaster College’s Mac Como Zoo website. “They eat small to medium-sized fishes, including cod, mackerel, and herring, as well as octopus, squid, and crustaceans. Shrimp are especially important to young harbor seal pups … Because harbor seals prey on commercially important species, they often come into conflict with fishermen.”