Numerous young seal pups are venturing onto Oregon beaches, where they are at-risk from well-meaning coastal visitors who mistakenly try to rescue them.
Oregon State University marine mammal biologist Jim Rice is urging the public to refrain from touching or approaching the seal pups, which in most cases are not orphaned or abandoned, he pointed out. They frequently are left on the beach by their mothers, who are out looking for food.
"It is perfectly normal for seal pups to be left alone on the beach in the spring," said Rice, who coordinates the statewide Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network headquartered at OSU's Marine Mammal Institute at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. "Newborn pups typically spend several hours each day waiting for their mothers to reunite with them."
"Adult female seals spend most of their time in the water, hunting for food, and only come ashore periodically to nurse their pups," Rice said. "But the mothers are wary of people and unlikely to rejoin a pup if there is activity nearby."
Rice said concerned but uninformed beach-goers will sometimes interfere, picking up seal pups and taking them away from the beaches – and their mothers. A more common threat is hovering by curious onlookers, which can cause stress to the pups and prevents their mothers from returning to them.
"It's tempting for some people to attempt to 'rescue' these seemingly hapless pups," Rice said, "but a pup's best chance for survival is to be left alone. A dependent pup that's taken away from its mother will certainly die."
Even with the best of intentions, Rice said, people can do a great deal of harm. And additionally, persons who disturb seal pups – even those who are just trying to help – risk being fined under laws intended to protect marine mammals from harassment. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits interference with seal pups and other marine mammals on the beach.
Bystanders should stay at least 50 yards away and keep their dogs leashed, Rice said.
"After suckling for about four weeks, weaned pups are abandoned by their mothers, left to fend for themselves," Rice added. "They will continue to come onto beaches periodically to rest as they grow and learn how to catch their own food."
The harbor seal pupping season on the Oregon coast is generally March through June, with a peak in mid-May. Anyone who observes incidents of seal pup harassment, or animals in distress, should call the Oregon State Police at 1-800-452-7888, Rice said.
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