The Seacoast Science Center’s Marine Mammal Rescue Team just wrapped up its inaugural year.
The team took over responding to rescue calls for seals and other stranded mammals in coastal New Hampshire last January.
The New England Aquarium in Boston previously handled those duties.
Ashley Stokes is rescue coordinator for the Marine Mammal Rescue Team.
She joins Morning Edition to talk about the group’s efforts.
Tell us a little bit about the program and how the first year went.
So we formally took over marine mammal rescue for the state of New Hampshire on Jan. 1 of 2014. We’re part of a network with Northeast organizations that do this work.
How many rescues have you done?
Coming into this, New England Aquarium did give us their data for New Hampshire from 2010 to 2013. So we did have a lot of the field experience, so we kind of knew a little bit of what to expect. Looking at the data, and our experience, we thought average would be somewhere between 60 and 70 animals a year. We closed out 2014 with 73.
Has that average held steady over the past several years? Do you see spikes at certain times?
There is kind of an ebb and flow to marine mammal rescue, depending on the seasonality of the year, but also, if there’s anything unique going on. In 2011, they had an unusual mortality event and Hampton was kind of considered ground zero, if you will of that event. So at that time, we did have over 150 animals in that area that were dead or dying. It turned out to be a strain of the avian flu. There’s a lot of studies going on now to see if that is a strain that may be transferrable to humans. For that reason alone, it’s a benefit to have these organizations around that are doing this work.
So this work isn’t just for the animals themselves. There’s a wider public health issue?
Right. So seals previously were looked at as sentinels of the sea or canaries in the coal mine, but now they’re looking at them on a national level as an indicator species of ocean health. Education is a big part of this program, not only for the rescue itself, but it’s great for us to be out there and be present out there when there is an animal on the beach. We help educate the public as to why it’s there, why they shouldn’t approach it, and what it might be presenting with.
How many people are on the team?
As far as staff, it’s myself full time. We have three rescue assistants that are part time. We also have a consulting veterinarian.
How is the program funded?
In addition to the staff, we do also have 32 field volunteers, which helps to kind of keep our costs down a little bit, as far as staff. We rely very heavily on our volunteer base. There is some federal funding, but it is now extremely limited. For that reason, we rely heavily on the support of the public and the support of our community; not only corporate supporters and corporate donors, but also private donors and just normal, everyday people that might be able to donate.
Walk me through the procedure for a rescue. Do you hear from the general public about an animal in distress and that’s when you respond?
We rely very heavily on the public to let us know that these animals, alive or dead, are out there on the shores.
Can you give a rescue story that was a highlight?
I’ll give you a highlight of Belmont, who has now become our poster child or poster seal; our mascot for the Marine Mammal Rescue Team. He was our first seal that we brought to rehab, so we was only 24- to 48-hours old when we first got out there. Harbor seals will be with their mom typically about three weeks, sometimes approaching four weeks, or about 21 days.
During that period, there’s a critical bonding going on there. The mother is teaching the pup a lot that the pup will need to know in order to survive. And she will drop the pup off on a quiet beach in order to go out and fish for food so that she can come back and nurse the pup. If she does try to come back and she sees a threat on the beach, she will not return until that threat is gone. And after some time passes, if there is still a threat, she will abandon the pup. That’s what happened in this case. It was deemed maternal abandonment, likely due to human interaction.
So that’s what we’re really trying to get out of ahead of; getting our people out there on the beach, especially with the live animals and keeping a volunteer or staff member on the beach so long as the animal is there to educate the public and negate the chance for human interaction. Belmont would not have survived on his own because he was still dependent. He spent about four months in rehab and was released on Sept. 2. So that was an exciting thing for us; our first start-to-finish success story.