Md. sees visitors from Arctic

Hunting ban, lack of food may be pushing harp seals to Mid-Atlantic beaches

May 16, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

What's next, polar bears in Ocean City?

Harp seals, members of an Arctic species that breed on floating ice in Canada, have been swimming ashore in relatively balmy Maryland and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.

Six of the famously furry mammals have been sighted on Maryland beaches from Ocean City to the Assateague National Seashore over the past 18 months, according to a rescue squad led by the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

A polar invasion might be mounting. Federal researchers say 297 harp seals were reported on beaches from Virginia to Maine last year, almost double the 152 reported in 1995.

Bans on hunting white-coated baby harp seals have led to a population boom that is pushing the species farther south, according to Gordon Waring, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Greenpeace and other animal-rights activists campaigned in the 1970s and '80s against clubbing the baby seals and helped persuade Canada to ban hunts of the youngest animals in 1987.

"The population is growing, with an estimated 5.5 million today," Waring said. He said that while the population center is still in Canadian waters, "it's not surprising, with the large number of harp seals, that some of them are now showing up in U.S. waters."

Overharvesting of cod and other fish in the North Atlantic might also have deprived the seals of their normal food, driving them farther south in search of other meals, said Jennifer Dittmar, a marine biologist with the National Aquarium.

"We have seen an increase of harp seals in this area over the last three or four years, and the overall population growth has a lot to do with that," Dittmar said. "Increased commercial fishing may also be decreasing their traditional food source."

Three decades ago, harp seals appeared to be so threatened that Greenpeace videotaped hunters clubbing the animals as a part of its anti-hunting publicity campaign. The group also spray-painted pups with red paint to make their fur coats less marketable.

John Hocevar, a marine biologist with Greenpeace, said he was surprised to hear that harp seals were straying so far outside of their normal range and turning up in Mid-Atlantic states. "This is interesting and weird," he said. "There has definitely been a healthy rebound in their numbers."

Hocevar added that he believes harp seals still face an uncertain future, in part because of overfishing. Canada allowed the resumption of seal hunting in 2000, permitting the harvest of up to 400,000 young seals a year with gray coats, animals that are slightly older than the white-coated pups.

Harp seals are gray with black faces when adult and reach maturity in four to six years. Their name comes from black, harp-shaped markings on their backs.

The mammals live in large herds, growing up to 6 feet long and about 300 pounds, with females giving birth to one white pup each spring.

The most recent stranding in the Chesapeake region was on Feb. 8. People strolling along the water's edge in Bethany Beach, Del., saw a harp seal looking sick, Dittmar said.

"It was observed eating sand," she said. "The seal had drainage from its eyes and nose and it was underweight."

Dittmar and colleagues with the aquarium's marine animal rescue program picked up the year-old female seal and brought her back to a tank in Baltimore.

There, biologists gave the seal antibiotics to treat a mild case of pneumonia. They fed the animal lots of herring and capelin and helped her gain 25 pounds. After about two months, the seal - nicknamed Kola after a frigid region of Russia - was healthy.

Dittmar and the aquarium team released the animal back into the Atlantic off Ocean City on April 6.

It's not clear where Kola went after plunging into the waves. Other seals released by National Aquarium rescue team have been tracked by candy-bar-sized radio transmitters glued onto their fur, Dittmar said.

Satellites followed these seals as they swam north from Maryland's Atlantic coast, heading back toward the Arctic, Dittmar said.

Nobody knows why there has been a burst of seals showing up recently, with 25 stranded on Maryland beaches and helped by the National Aquarium since 1990. Six have turned up since early 2005.

But it's clear that the animals are not setting up colonies - called "rookeries" - and breeding along the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Dittmar said. To raise pups, they need floating ice and much colder temperatures. So the theory is that these wayward seals - usually about a year old, an age when they first venture off on their own - swim more than a thousand miles north to rejoin their families in Canada, Dittmar said.

While the seals wander, stopping off on beaches along the coast, the furry creatures are a magnet for beachcombers. But people are warned not to pet them, said Jenny Yates, spokeswoman for the National Aquarium.

"They are very cute, but it's very important people understand they can't approach these animals," Yates said. "They bite."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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