WINTER HARBOR — Two dead seals that washed ashore last month near Winter Harbor are part of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared an “unusual mortality event” that is spreading north through the Gulf of Maine.
“The first one was an adult male harbor seal spotted near the Frazer Point picnic tables,” said Lindsey Jones, marine mammal stranding coordinator with Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic. “A second seal, an adult female, was spotted by a park ranger across from Rolling Island in Wonsqueak Harbor.”
Since July, more than 700 seals have died in Maine. The trend started south of Portland, expanding to the Midcoast region in late August, and most recently to Downeast Maine. Allied Whale, which serves the state from Rockland to the Canadian border, has taken in reports of almost 60 dead seals in the past month.
“It is normally rare for us to get 10 calls a month, but we’ve been getting up to 10 calls a day,” Jones said.
Necropsies have not been able to be performed on the two seals found near Winter Harbor, but in incidents farther south the main causes of death have been either avian influenza or phocine distemper virus.
“There were several seals found recently near Mount Desert Island,” Jones said. “We haven’t gotten back the necropsy results, but they did show preliminary signs of influenza.”
While the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming parts of the ocean worldwide, the root cause of the unusual mortality event remains unknown at this time.
The last such event for seals occurred in 2006, when 1,500 seals died along the Atlantic Coast. There are currently three other unusual mortality events occurring in the Gulf of Maine, affecting right, humpback and minke whales. The viruses present in the seals cannot be transferred to humans, but the phocine distemper virus can affect pets.
On Sept. 26, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued guidance for anyone who finds dead or stranded seals, advising them to contact the Maine Marine Animal Reporting Hotline at (800) 532-9551.