Marine mammal rescue group responds to increase in strandings

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By Steve Guntli

A local animal rescue service hopes to raise awareness following the recent stranding of marine mammals on the shores of Blaine and Birch Bay.

The Whatcom Maine Mammal Stranding Network (WMMSN) is a local nonprofit dedicated to rescuing distressed marine mammals and evaluating deceased ones.

In the last month, four juvenile harbor porpoises were stranded in Blaine and Birch Bay. One of these, stranded in the shallows near Semiahmoo Resort, was rescued in time and returned to the water. The other three died.

Victoria Souze, the principal investigator for WMMSN, said porpoises have been moving closer to shore over the last few years.

“People who live near the beaches have been telling me they’ve been seeing them in more shallow waters,” she said. “It’s a noticeable difference.”

As their name implies, harbor porpoises typically inhabit harbors, estuaries and other shallow waters.

Marine mammals all along the Pacific Coast have been moving closer to shore. According to various media reports, humpback whales have been making appearances near the San Francisco bay area in record numbers, leading San Francisco officials to issue warnings to boaters. Northwesterly winds have been pushing up cold, nutrient-rich waters from the bottom of the ocean in a phenomenon known as upwelling.

That has fueled blooms of phytoplankton that have led to an explosion of krill, the main food source of blue and humpback whales. Marine biologists suspect the whales are moving into shallower waters in pursuit of krill.

Souze couldn’t say what, exactly, was causing the porpoises to move shorewards.

“We don’t know the exact scientific reason,” she said. “We just know that porpoises will follow their food source.”

With the increased possibility of marine mammals stranding themselves, and the increased traffic along the beaches during the summer months, WMMSN is trying to raise awareness of its services.

“A lot of people don’t know we exist,” she said. “We’re trying to raise public awareness. We came to Drayton Harbor Days and we’ll have a booth at Discovery Days.”

In some cases, a call to the WMMSN hotline could mark the difference between life or death for a stranded mammal. Last week, a calf porpoise washed up near Semiahmoo Resort. By the time WMMSN was notified, the tide had receded too far for responders to save the calf.

“If someone had called our hotline, we could have been out two hours sooner and we could have saved it,” she said.

Souze said anyone who finds an animal, living or dead, should stay at least 100 yards away from it, and keep their dogs away as well.

Interfering can often be the worst thing someone can do for a stranded mammal.

In July, Souze said her organization rescued three orphaned seal pups from Blaine and Birch Bay, but those seals may not have needed rescuing if they had just been left alone.

“Seal mothers are not aggressive, so if they see people or dogs gathered around the pup, they won’t come back for them,” she said. “People are very well-meaning, but often the best thing to do is just give pups a wide berth and leave them alone.”

The WMMSN works in collaboration with the Northwest Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Everson. The rehab center fields calls about distressed or deceased mammals and contacts the WMMSN. To report a stranded or deceased mammal, call the hotline at 360/966-8845. For more information, visit wmmsn.org.

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