Seal shootings on rise around the bay

Published on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 by By Jeremy Schwartz

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Local wildlife officials expressed alarm this week after 11 dead seals washed up on the shores of Point Roberts and Blaine over the three days of Labor Day weekend.

Mariann Carrasco, lead investigator for the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network (WMMSN), said three of the dead seals had been shot in the head.

An additional seven looked as though they had died the same way, but confirmations on exact causes of death could not be reached, Carrasco said.

Eight of the dead seals were found on the beaches of Point Roberts while three were discovered closer to Blaine, Carrasco said. One seal pup, whose head had been removed, was also found near Lummi Island.

“It’s pretty unusual to lose your head in the water,” Carrasco said.

The WMMSN usually finds two or three seals that have been killed by human activity in a given week, Carrasco explained. Finding 11 over the course of a three-day weekend is highly unusual, she said.

Despite this unusual occurrence, Carrasco said the deaths might not necessarily mean more people are killing seals. The spike in reported dead seals might just mean more people have become aware of the WMMSN and know whom to report wounded or dead marine mammals, she said.

A possible reason for the uptick in seal deaths over Labor Day weekend could be the higher than normal sockeye salmon returns in the waters around Blaine and Point Roberts, Carrasco explained. Though it is illegal, Carrasco said it’s not unusual for commercial gillnet fishermen to kill seals caught in their nets or if they are competing with the fishermen for their catch.

Fishermen are supposed to rely on non-lethal methods to chase away seals from their nets or boats, Carrasco said. These methods include non-lethal ammunition, such as rubber bullets, and any manner of loud noises, such as starters pistols.

Since the majority of the dead seals washed up on the shores of Point Roberts, Carrasco said she thinks Canadian fishermen operating in Canadian waters might be responsible for most of the killings. Canadian law does not have an equivalent to the U.S. Marine Mammals Protection Act, which was passed in 1972 and prohibits the killing of marine mammals in U.S. waters, with certain exceptions.

Carrasco said part of her job is to educate the public about the prohibition on killing or harassing marine mammals. Fortunately, she said the group has had no reports this year of people attempting to help seal pups who appear to be abandoned.

“The education is helping,” Carrasco said. “No one has taken matters into their own hands.”

Getting within 100 feet of any marine mammal, living or dead, is illegal, Carrasco explained. Often times people attempting to aide seal pups will end up doing more harm than good, she said. Moving a seal pup to a bathtub or pouring water on it while it’s on a beach can lead to hypothermia and eventual death.

A part of Carrasco’s job is responding to reports of stranded or dead marine mammals and gathering data such as time, place and descriptions of the animal, and entered into a national database maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Most human-caused seal deaths are caused by accidental encounters with boats, she said.

The network ideally would perform detailed examinations of every dead marine mammal found, including necropsies, but do not have the human resources, Carrasco explained. The number of dead seals washing up on Point Roberts highlighted the need for a qualified volunteer biologist in the community, she said.

Carrasco said any qualified person in Point Roberts interested in volunteering with the network should call 360/303-3608 or visit www.wmmsn.org for more information.

Anyone in Whatcom County who encounters a stranded or dead marine mammal should call 360/966-8845.