On July 20, 2022 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an Unusual Mortality Event for elevated harbor and gray seal strandings in Maine beginning on June 1, 2022.
Marine Mammals of Maine (MMoME), a permitted marine mammal stranding responder operating from Kittery to Rockland, Maine, has been documenting elevated levels of seal strandings. Working collaboratively with NOAA and network partners to collect samples from seals MMoME received results that some tests performed were positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 on July 1. MMoME’s response hotline is in operation 24/7 year-round and reports of seals continue to be elevated. The community is reminded to call 1-800-532-9551 to report all live and deceased seals and to stay 150 feet away from seals at all times. Data collection and sampling will continue to take place to document the spread and number of animals impacted by HPAI. Current stranding numbers and locations can be found on NOAA’s website.
Lynda Doughty, MMoME’s Executive Director said “We’re grateful for the community of support that has been shown to us since we began reporting high numbers of strandings. Our network partners, particularly Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in New York, have been helping to develop an incident command structure so that we can keep everyone safe while responding to a high volume of cases and maintain high quality data collection.”
According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act an Unusual Mortality Event is “a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.” How the seals are becoming infected with HPAI is an area of investigation, though it is believed to be linked to seals coming in close contact with infected birds. HPAI H5N1 has been confirmed in birds in Maine beginning in February 2022. This event represents the first time that HPAI H5N1 has been documented in seals in the United States.
Doughty added “Thanks to our wide network of volunteers we have collected the data necessary as our hotline received calls of stranded seals. This data collection and our past experiences with UME’s allowed us to quickly identify the anomalies and make the decision to close our seal rehabilitation center to new patients to prevent spread to those in our care.”
Seal strandings to date have been largely concentrated in the Casco Bay area. Since June MMoME has responded to over 160 seal strandings in all counties of the organization’s coverage area. Seal strandings are the majority of the calls received, though the team has also responded to two whales and a porpoise in this two month period.
Marine Mammals of Maine responds to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in southern and midcoast Maine, cares for sick, injured and abandoned seals from all over New England, studies East coast marine mammal populations, and educates about global marine mammal conservation.