Hundreds of East Coast seals are showing up, stranded on New England shores dead or sick.
Harbor and gray seals on the northern Atlantic Coast of the United States have tested positive for avian influenza, or bird flu, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries. Others have tested positive for phocine distemper virus, similar to the virus dogs can contract and which has caused epidemics among seals in other parts of the world, killing thousands, according to the National Institutes of Health.
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Both gray and harbor seals can range as far south as the Carolinas, where they sometimes travel during the winter months and haul themselves onto beaches to rest and soak up some sun.
The seals that end up stranded but alive are “in poor body condition with clinical signs of lethargy, coughing, sneezing and seizing,” according to NOAA. As of last week, 532 seals had washed up on the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Of those, more than 400 were found dead.
Samples from those seals were sent to Tufts University and the University of California, Davis labs for testing, NOAA said. Samples tested “preliminarily positive” for either bird flu or the distemper virus. Four of the seals tested positive for both viruses.
“We have many more samples to process and analyze, so it is still too soon to determine if either or both of these viruses are the primary cause of the mortality event,” NOAA wrote in an announcement Aug. 23.
Previous deaths of seals in the area also have been linked to both viruses, but the viruses have been present during years when there were not numerous deaths, according to NOAA.
“If you see a new sick or injured seal, please call the NOAA hotline: 866-755-NOAA (6622). Please be patient, as the stranding response teams are very busy,” NOAA wrote.
“For your safety and theirs, don’t touch a stranded seal, don’t allow pets to approach the seal, and observe the animal from a safe distance of 100 yards.”
Harbor seals can grow up to 6 feet long and weigh up to 285 pounds. They live to be about 30. They’re “one of the most common marine mammals along the U.S. West and East coasts,” according to NOAA. They eat mostly “fish, shellfish and crustaceans.”
Gray seals are larger — they can grow up to 10 feet and weigh as much as 880 pounds. They also live slightly longer, up to 35 years, according to NOAA. Gray seals have a slightly more varied diet than harbor seals, eating “fish, crustaceans, squid, octopuses and sometimes even seabirds.”
All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.