A deadly outbreak of distemper that has killed hundreds of seals in three states is spreading east along the Maine coast, keeping responders busy as they deal with an unusually high number of reports.
Over the past couple of months, Allied Whale, the marine mammal research arm of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, has been receiving dozens of calls about sick or dead seals between Rockland and the Canadian border, according to Lindsey Jones, the group’s stranding coordinator.
So far this month, Allied Whale has responded to reports of 14 dead seals, which is more than one a day, Jones said Thursday.
Last month, it counted “just over 50” dead seals in its eastern Maine response area, she said. For September 2017, it had nine, while in September 2016, it had only two.
“Southern Maine is still getting most of the calls,” Jones said.
Humans are not susceptible to the virus, but it can affect dogs and cats.
The outbreak of the virus in the Northeast has been classified as an unusual mortality event by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Since July, more than 1,200 gray seals and harbor seals have been reported to be sick or dead in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, according to NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel.
Nearly 1,000 of them — 968 — have been reported in Maine, Goebel said Thursday. Of those, 802 were dead when reported and 166 were sick but alive.
According to Jones, reports likely will decline as seasonal residents close up their summer homes and fewer people walk along the shore, but cooler weather is not known to have an actual effect on the spread of the virus.
Goebel said it is not clear whether seasonal migration habits might affect the rate of reports of sick and dead seals in Maine or New England.
“As we head into winter, ice seals may come into the area, so we may also see different species,” Goebel said. “But at this point, we can’t really speculate on how things are going to play out.”
Most of the affected seals have been reported this year in Maine south of Portland. As of last week, Massachusetts and New Hampshire each had fewer than 200 cases for 2018, according to NOAA.
Like all marine mammals, seals are protected by federal law, which means people are supposed to leave the creatures alone. Only groups specifically authorized by the federal government such as Allied Whale or, in the southern part of the state, Marine Mammals of Maine, are allowed to assist stranded seals or to disturb dead ones.
“We recover what we can,” Jones said, adding that the availability of volunteers sometimes affects Allied Whale’s ability to respond to a report of a sick or dead seal. Some of the reports the group has received are from outer islands such as Swans Island or Isle Au Haut, which require more travel time, and sometimes the seal is in a place that is difficult to reach, such as a ledge surrounded by cliffs.
“Sometimes they turn up in places where it wouldn’t be safe to haul a 150-pound seal up a rocky beach,” Jones said.
Samples can be taken from seals in the field, she said.
Allied Whale does not have the capacity to nurse sick animals back to health, even on a short-term basis, so any sick seal is brought to Marine Mammals of Maine’s temporary holding facility in Harpswell. From there, surviving seals are brought out of state, to either the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, or the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut for long-term rehabilitation.
Allied Whale conducted three seal necropsies in September on dead seals that it brought back to its lab at COA, Jones said. Samples taken from the seals and sent off for analysis have not yet been returned, but each seal had signs of suffering from influenza, which can result from a weakened immune system caused by distemper.
The latest outbreak is not the first time influenza has been linked to a spike in seal deaths in New England. More than 150 seals died in the region in 2011 because of the virus, which also caused a rash of seal deaths in 1979 and 1980.
The public is advised to stay well away from seals, especially people who may be walking their dogs along beaches. People can contract influenza from sick but living seals, which often have symptoms such as sneezing or coughing, watery eyes and lethargic behavior, Jones said. Pets such as cats, dogs and even ferrets can catch distemper from seals.
“People should keep their pets away from dead seals on the beach,” Jones said.
To report a dead or sick seal in Maine, call the Maine Marine Mammal Reporting Hotline at 800-532-9551. If the seal is in the eastern part of the state, either in Rockland or anywhere east to the Canadian border, Allied Whale can be contacted directly at 207-288-5644 or by emailing email@example.com.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jennifer Goebel's name.