BIDDEFORD, Maine — The gray seal named Black Rock was the last to leave, moaning sadly and attempting to climb back into his kennel before human handlers tipped up the container, spilling the reluctant pinniped onto the sandy Biddeford beach.
It was almost as if the nostalgic Black Rock knew he represented the grand finale for the University of New England’s closing Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center, which released its final five seals back into the wild Tuesday night.
But like the university hopes to do, the animal quickly turned the corner. Black Rock spotted his rehabilitation buddy — fellow gray seal Stratton — shimmying down the wet sand toward the Atlantic Ocean and hurried to catch up.
Animal care technician Shannon Prendiville said the two gray seals were inseparable at the center, an oddity in the world of marine animal rehabilitation, so it was appropriate that they swam off into the sunset together.
Along with three harp seals released moments before, Black Rock and Stratton were the last animals to be nursed to health at the center, which is being closed to accommodate a restructuring of the university’s 13-year-old Marine Science Center.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” admitted Ed Bilsky, UNE’s vice president of research and scholarship. “But we’re moving ahead with our own plans for academic research now.”
Bilsky said the Marine Science Center, which housed MARC, will now turn its focus toward programs dealing with biology, sustainable fisheries, ocean acidification, aquaculture and the marine economy — programs that plug into growth industries and provide more fertile employment grounds for university graduates, he said.
Bilsky added that, due to the efforts of MARC and countless other organizations, the seal populations have grown from previously unstable levels, lessening the need to save each and every one of the animals.
In part because the seals are making a successful comeback, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also cut back its yearly John H. Prescott Grant funding, stripping UNE of nearly $100,000 of annual revenue to fund MARC.
Bilsky said it cost the center between $3,000 and $5,000 to rehabilitate each sea animal brought to the facility by rescue groups, not including the cost of infrastructure, like sea water pumps and treatment equipment for the indoor tanks.
“Seals are a very important part of the ecosystem here,” Bilsky said. “They were threatened, endangered, and thanks to the efforts at the state and federal levels, they’ve rebounded. Now we’re looking at bigger problems.”
Added Markus Frederich, associate professor of marine sciences at the school: “By dealing with broader issues of ocean health, hopefully we won’t have as many seals who need to be rehabilitated.”
Some of the nearly 300 people who turned out for the center’s final seal release protested the facility’s closure, carrying banners that read “Save MARC,” “Save seals” and “Save turtles.”
Samantha Bell, a community volunteer at MARC, said it’s currently “pup season” for harbor seals, when rescuers are busiest responding to young seals who have been separated from their mothers and have become stranded and malnourished.
“There’s kind of a void here now,” she said. “[The center’s closure] is definitely going to have an impact on the current pup season, and we’re not sure what’s going to happen in the future.”
With the closure of the rehabilitation center, seal rescuers will now have to transport the ailing animals to either the National Marine Life Center in Massachusetts or the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.
Area rescuers have expressed concerns that many traumatized seals won’t survive the longer drives, and space limits at the other New England facilities will force responders to make tough choices about which animals receive treatment and which ones don’t.
“We do this because we want to try to help animals, but it makes our jobs even harder when there’s no place for them to go,” Lynn Doughty, executive director of the organization Marine Mammals of Maine, told the York County Coast Star after the MARC closure announcement last month.
“We really have to prioritize which animals go because there’s such limited capacity for the volume we see in the next two months,” she said.
As part of its final seal release Tuesday night, MARC animal care technician Asheley Simpson reminded those in attendance that Marine Mammals of Maine will continue rescuing stranded and injured sea animals, and urged people to support the organization in MARC’s absence.
“We are grateful to the MARC staff and the many dedicated volunteers over the years who have contributed to our success in this area,” said Barry Costa-Pierce, director of UNE’s Marine Science Center, in a statement. “[The Marine Science Center] is now ready to enter the exciting next phase of our continued contributions to marine science research, academic excellence and Maine’s growing marine economy.”