YORK, Maine — In the past week alone, at least four dead seals have washed up on Long Sands and Short Sands beaches, among more than 800 seal corpses in various stages of decomposition found on southern Maine beaches this year.
But where to put them? Thanks to the efforts of state, federal and local officials, this stinky problem now has a solution: compost them.
The idea is to come up with a plan now, so that everyone is prepared in case this mass die-off continues next year or in future years.
“We can’t stop the virus from happening and it’s going to run its course. That’s how any population, human or wildlife, deals with these things,” said Lynda Doughty, director of Marine Mammals of Maine. The virus to which she refers is distemper, which the federal government determined in September to be the primary cause of the seal deaths. “So we’re planning. What if we start to get these high volumes again? What can we do next year?”
It’s a question towns including York have pondered this past summer, as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is particular about the removal of anything, including dead seals, from a beach. On the other hand, there had been no guidance from the DEP about what to do with the corpses, said York Human Resources Manager Kathryn Lagasse.
“We have been getting an abundance of calls about what to do with the seals,” she said, not all from beachgoers. Sometimes the seals wash up on hard-to-reach craggy inlets, and the smell can be overwhelming.
“What became evident was that towns were burying these carcasses hither and yon. We’re not going to revisit that, we’re not going to punish the towns,” said DEP environmental specialist Carla Hopkins. “But it was clear we needed to provide guidance to municipalities to tell them how to handle and dispose of the carcasses properly.”
As a result, DEP, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Marine Mammals of Maine in a proactive partnership have been working with York and other southern Maine towns to devise seal removal protocols for the remainder of this season and for any future die-off that may occur. Ogunquit, Wells, Yarmouth, Old Orchard Beach, Kennebunkport, Harpswell and Saco, in addition to York, have already devised protocols, and Freeport will be next.
Representatives from the state and federal agencies, as well as Doughty, were in York last week to discuss this issue, at a meeting put together in just two days by York police dispatcher Brian Twist. Twist said dispatchers were inundated with calls all summer about seal corpses, but the frequency ramped up in September. That’s when, said Doughty, there were a couple of storms that likely brought dead carcasses that had been right offshore onto the beaches.
“All eight of us have received so many calls, and we’re frustrated,” said Twist. “When we have roadkill, we can call someone. But with seals, there are federal regulations. People want us to just take them and be done with it. But we can’t do that.”
It reached a crescendo Sept. 29, when he tracked down Mark King, an environmental specialist at the DEP, and asked him what can be done. King, Hopkins, NOAA officials and others had just developed guidance on this issue and King said they would come to York the following Monday. Twist quickly put together a group of town officials, including people from police, fire, parks and recreation and the Department of Public Works.
“I just wanted to come up with a plan, because it’s not only police taking calls but parks and recreation too,” he said. “We’ve never had an issue like this before, with multiple dead seals continuously washing up.”
King said each town brings different people to the table and may have slightly different local protocols, but in all cases, “what’s really special about these communities is that they are choosing to work together, all branches of government from public works, dispatchers, town manager and in York’s case, Parks and Recreation. We’re asking them to do things they don’t normally do, and they’re rising to the occasion.”
DEP is asking towns to set up a special compost area at transfer stations or public works garages to accept the carcasses. “It really doesn’t require a lot of effort. All it requires is hot compost,” said King, who oversees municipal compost operations for the DEP. The state wants a leaf and mold compost 24 inches thick, and the carcasses as they come in are then covered with a coating of 24-inch compost. In return, towns will not be required to have special licensing.
King and Hopkins said, in York’s case, the DPW had already laid a bed that was ready to accept carcasses. “They’d already implemented the plan. It was awesome, actually,” said King.
For seals that have washed up on the rocks, DEP has given the town permission to access the seal, assess the situation and if warranted sprinkle lime on the carcass to accelerate deterioration.
In York, the protocol will work as follows:
— People who find dead seals are asked to call the York Police Department at (207) 363-4444, rather than Marine Mammals of Maine or the Parks and Recreation Department. It is against federal law to get within 100 feet of a seal, so everyone is reminded to stay away from the carcass. In addition, although distemper can’t spread to humans, it is unclear whether it can be transmitted to dogs, say officials.
— Dispatch will contact Marine Mammals and York Parks and Recreation Department, which has jurisdiction over removal of the carcass. If the seal is too large to remove via pickup truck, the town will call in a public works bucket loader.
“We work with so many towns and cities, it can limit the time frame for how soon we can get to an animal,” said Doughty. At the least, MMM asks for measurements and multiple photos so it can determine age, gender and species, she said.
If it is a freshly deceased animal, said Doughty, MMM will want to collect it, to ascertain whether it died from distemper or for some other reason. “If they need to bring it off the beach, they will bring it somewhere so we can pick it up,” she said.
Twist said he is pleased with the protocol York has set up.
“We’re happy with it, the state is happy with it, and the federal agencies are happy with it,” he said. “I’m glad we’re getting out in front of this.”
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