Removal of Dead Seals Stirs Concerns

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Biologist Fears Disease Hitting Humans

By Nancy Rineman

Hampton Union, Friday, August 17, 2012

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
A young seal washed up July 20 on Hampton Beach. A lifeguard stayed with and protected the seal for several hours. [Courtesy photo/Pauline Veit Gard]

HAMPTON -- The phenomenon experienced along New Hampshire's shoreline of more than 100 harbor seal deaths is not over, and may actually intensify, according to Hampton marine biologist Ellen Goethel.

Goethel appeared at Monday night's Board of Selectmen meeting to provide an update on recent findings about the rash of dead seals that washed up on area beaches last year.

Goethel reported that research conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this summer revealed that avian flu was the cause of death of more than 100 seals in local waters. While no cases have been documented of humans contracting the disease, Goethel said she is concerned that dogs and humans are at risk if contact is made.

"People treat seals as if they are warm, fluffy puppy dogs," she said. "We need to treat live or dead seals as if they are wild animals."

While typically the dead seals and other marine life washed up on shore were left to go out with the next tide, last year's slew of dead seals demonstrated the need for change. Goethel suggested there was a lack of communication between NOAA and New England Aquarium about the dead seals. NOAA declined responsibility for the problem, N.H. Fish and Game said marine animals were not within its jurisdiction, and it was ultimately determined the town had the responsibility of dealing with the seal carcasses.

Hampton selectmen agreed dead seal reports should be directed to the town manager if found on local beaches. Those on the state beach should be removed by the state, they said, but that raises concerns of a lack of cohesion that could delay removal.

Goethel said Town Manager Fred Welch had public works employees wear gloves and masks to safely remove the dead seals from Hampton beaches, but Welch said the pressure will be on the state to take care of Hampton Beach.

Welch said the town will strongly encourage the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development to cooperate.

Goethel said she is personally concerned for fishermen and lobstermen who may inadvertently come into contact with the seals, which could also carry rabies and hepatitis.

Goethel said she didn't want to alarm people, but felt an obligation to inform beach-goers and swimmers of the risks associated with the animals and their carcasses.

She said the warm waters will bring more young seals, too many for the area, resulting in inadequate food supplies.

By law, passers-by are required to remain 150 feet away from a live seal, or they will face a steep fine, Goethel said.

Selectmen agreed that Welch should be the contact person when a dead seal is discovered.

Goethel said she is convinced that an increase in deceased harbor seals is imminent.

"We're going to see many more dead seals," she said.

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