CHATHAM — Federal officials are issuing a familiar warning to boaters and beach goers. Seal pups are on the shore, and getting too close is dangerous – and illegal.
Local police departments get scores of calls from well-intended citizens each spring about young harbor seals on the beach. The pups are often left alone on the shore for as long as 24 hours while the mother feeds just offshore. That behavior is normal, according to a seasonal announcement by NOAA Fisheries.
“The best thing you can do if you want to help is keep away from the animal and keep your pets away from it, so the mother has a chance to return,” said Mendy Garron, NOAA Fisheries regional marine mammal stranding program coordinator. Too often, people approach the pup to check its well-being or to try and snap a quick selfie. Experts say approaching wild animals increases stress on them, increasing the chances that they will act unpredictably.
“Seals have powerful jaws and an leave a lasting impression,” the notice reads. “We have received reports of a number of injuries to humans as a result of getting too close to an animal during a quick photo op.”
Approaching a seal pup can put the animal in real danger as well. People on the beach may not be able to see the pup’s mother swimming offshore, but the mother seal may be observing from a distance and may decide that it is unsafe to return.
“It might only take a few seconds for you to snap the photo, but the mother may abandon her pup if she feels threatened,” the announcement reads. “For the seal pup, the consequences can be devastating.”
The most common seal off the Lower Cape is the gray seal, which has its pups between December and February, typically on remote islands off Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. But harbor seals are often present as well, and both species are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Officials recommend staying at least 150 feet away from seals. Sometimes a curious pup will approach people on its own, but they should still keep away.
“If the seal turns to look in your direction, waves its flippers, looks like it’s yawning, or goes to move away, back up and give the animal more space,” the advisory reads. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal to harass protected species, and that happens when the animal changes its behavior in response to a person.
People spotting a dead, injured or clearly sick seal should call the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the local representative of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. IFAW’s 24-hour hotline is 508-743-9548. When activated, IFAW typically dispatches a trained volunteer or staff member to evaluate the animal to see if a rescue is warranted.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com