BIDDEFORD, Maine — The University of New England has announced the closure of its Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation program, which will no longer be taking in sick seal pups and other marine mammals.
Seals and sea turtles under MARC care will continue rehabilitation and be released back into the wild, but no more animals will be admitted. The space will be repurposed to accommodate new programming, said vice president for research and scholarship Ed Bilsky.
“We’ve been doing marine rehabilitation since 2001, and we are, in fact, very proud of what we’ve accomplished as a group. We’ve rehabilitated over 1,000 seals and released them back into the wild. The seal populations that were endangered are no longer endangered,” Bilsky said. “On the other hand, we need to remember we are a university, and we need to educate students and give them the skill paths they need.”
The closure of the MARC program was announced on the program’s website, along with new undergraduate marine sciences programs, including a degree in ocean studies and marine affairs. The program has been known for its regular seal releases, which attract dozens of community members. The MARC program routinely took in seals and other marine mammals from throughout New England, especially those found on Maine and New Hampshire beaches.
As a rehabilitation facility, Bilsky said the MARC program staff and volunteers did not rescue seals or other mammals; a network of rescue groups located in Massachusetts and Connecticut do that.
“They will have to receive these extra seals,” he said. “If another group in Maine wants to take the initiative to start a rehab center, we will share with them all of the information and experience we have received over the years.”
The nearest rehab centers are now the National Marine Life Center in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts and Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut.
UNE’s Marine Science Center established the MARC program in 2001 to assist in the effort to rescue, rehabilitate and release marine mammals – specifically gray and harbor seals, which are native to North Atlantic waters but were threatened with dwindling numbers, the release says.
“During our strategic planning, which has been going on for a year and a half now, we started to go in some new directions and had to decide where we are going to invest our resources,” Bilsky said. “Overall, we think this is a positive direction. There will be people who are upset about this, absolutely. Our partners certainly understand, and we hope the general public understands that a university’s prime mission is to educate students and prepare them for the workforce.”
Two full-time staff members and a number of volunteers, including student volunteers, will be affected by the change, Bilsky said.
“I think we have thoughtfully worked with them and met with them. We are going to help ensure that they get new jobs and are successful in whatever they do going forward,” he said, adding that students will have other opportunities and hands-on training. “We’ll make sure we take care of everybody.”
UNE’s Marine Science Center and MARC have active community outreach programs, Bilsky said, which will continue.
“We understand getting kids engaged in marine sciences and environment is very important,” he said. “We will continue to do many tours and many hands-on types of experiences — not with seals, but with other marine organisms.”
Kennebunkport resident Donna Lutjen said the news is “devastating.” Lutjen’s 4-year-old son, Bodhi, has been so impacted by the MARC program and its staff and volunteers that he has set up his own research rehabilitation facility in their living room.
“The work that they do is not only critical to preserving marine mammal species in Southern Maine and protecting them, but just the education work they do is invaluable,” she said. “The work they do is extraordinary, and it’s important. It’s multifaceted. It’s the inspiration, the education that they give to the next generation. It’s the passion that they inspire. This is part of Maine’s heritage. This is part of why people love coming up here. I can’t stand the thought of such an integral program being taken away.”
Lutjen said her son has been attending seal releases with the MARC program since he was 3 years old and has a calendar to count down the number of days until he is 18 and can volunteer at MARC.
“He’s passionate about this, and part of the reason he’s passionate about this is because of the researchers and the students that are working there. They take the time to really inspire the next generation. They give them an opportunity to really see something extraordinary happening right in their own backyard,” she said. “This is what he wants to do and it’s because of them. They’ve just lit him up from the inside and that’s such a special thing. It would devastate me, and I don’t even want to tell my son. It would devastate him. Beyond the impact to my family, it’s the impact to all the marine life that they’ve helped and that still need it.”