BIDDEFORD, Maine — Rescuing seals and other marine animals will be harder now that the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation program has closed, local rescue organizations said this week, but it will not stop them from trying.
“The rescue work will still be done,” said Wendy Lull, president of the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, which leads New Hampshire’s marine mammal rescue effort. “It just makes it harder.”
The closing of the MARC program was announced last week 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. It routinely took in seals and other marine mammals from throughout New England, and especially those found on Maine and New Hampshire beaches.
“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,” said Ed Bilsky, vice president for research and scholarship. “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.”
Bilsky said there are two full-time staff members and a number of volunteers, including student volunteers, who will be affected by the change.
It was heading into the traditionally busy Memorial Day weekend that Lynda Doughty, executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine, said she received a press release that the MARC facility was closing. The news, she said, was “devastating.”
“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,” Doughty said.
This is the busiest and most critical time of year for marine mammal rescues, Doughty said, when seal pups tend to be abandoned by their mothers.
“We were slammed this weekend with animals,” Doughty said, adding that the organization has responded to assist with 24 seal pups in the past two weeks. “Right now we’re trying to coordinate a transport to Mystic Aquarium in order for a couple animals to go. We really have to prioritize which animals go because there’s such limited capacity for the volume we see in the next two months.”
The Seacoast Science Center and Marine Mammals of Maine both have hotlines people can call to report a mammal they believe may be in need. When they get a call, the organizations deploy responders to assess the animal. Sometimes the animal is healthy and has hauled out on to land, which is part of what they normally do, but other times they are in need of care and rehabilitation. In that case, the animals would often be taken to MARC.
The nearest rehabilitation facilities are now National Marine Life Center in Buzzard’s Bay, Mass., and Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.
“They will have to receive these extra seals,” Bilsky said.
But space at the facilities is limited, local rescue organizations said, and the longer trip will be difficult for the animals.
Now, Lull and Doughty said that will require longer trips to Connecticut and they will have to extend the length of time they monitor animals.
Lull said members of her team will be meeting with their consulting veterinarian and turning to guidance from National Marine Fisheries to determine what will be the best course of action for rescued animals.
“There’s a lot of conversation going on among the stranding community about what is more stressful to the animal. What’s in the best interest of the animal? Do you put it in the kennel and start driving and if it dies you turn around?” Lull said. “There are public and animal safety issues that have to be taken into consideration. If you are just going to get the animal away from people and put it somewhere else we have to identify a place for that. It does raise some questions.”
Over the weekend, Doughty said she had to put down a seal and that one died in transport.
“We are already in the middle of these tough decisions,” she said. “We’re working on trying to find solutions because we know that this service is needed in Maine. Right now we’re just trying to get through.”
UNE’s Marine Science Center and MARC also have active community outreach programs, Bilsky said, which will continue.
Though the closure of MARC will devastate 4-year-old Bodhi Lutjen, who has been so affected by the MARC program and its staff and volunteers that he has set up his own research rehabilitation facility in their living room, said his mom Donna Lutjen.
“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 going to seal releases with the MARC program since he was 3 years old and has a calendar where he counts down the 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. Beyond the impact to my family, it’s the impact to all the marine life that they’ve helped and that still need it.”
How to help
Here are a few simple guidelines for helping young seal pups that appear to be stranded:
1. Keep pets away. While it’s often the pet that finds the seals, be sure to keep it back from where the seal has beached itself.
2. Stay at least 150 back — it’s the law. Getting too close will only cause the seal more stress, or could force the seal back into the water when it’s in no shape to be there.
3. If the seal appears to be in distress: In Maine, call the Marine Mammals 24-hour hotline immediately at 800-532-9551.
Signs of distress include vocalization and a seal that appears either too ill or too exhausted to go back in the water.
4. Don’t touch or attempt to carry the seals — they bite.
5. If the seal is dead, call the hotline and report its location.