Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Marine biologist calls for protocols to deal with dead seals

From SeaCoastLine:  Marine biologist calls for protocols to deal with dead seals

A marine biologist and member of Hampton's Conservation Commission said the same environmental conditions that occurred last year when 162 dead seals washed ashore on Seacoast beaches exist today and it will likely happen again.

A recent study revealed the seals perished as a result of a new strain of avian flu capable of being transmitted from birds to mammals, possibly humans.

Ellen Goethel will go before the Hampton Board of Selectmen on Monday, Aug. 13, because she wants to see protocols put in place to protect the public in case there is a reoccurrence. "It may never happen again, but my gut feeling is that it's going to," Goethel said.

The report, titled "Emergence of Fatal Avian Influenza in New England Harbor Seals," was released last week by a team of experts tasked with determining why the seals turned up dead from southern Maine to northern Massachusetts last fall. In the report, researchers identify the cause of death as an influenza A virus subtype, "H3N8," a new strain of avian flu that can jump from birds to marine mammals.

While there have been no known human cases to date, researchers urged caution, given the history of bird flu and its ability to evolve into forms that can infect people.

Goethel said the findings are a big concern.

"It's dangerous," she said. "We are a coastal community and we need to be on top of it. As a marine biologist, common sense tells you there is possibility of human infection whenever there is infection in a mammal. It's a human health risk and we have to decide how we are going to deal with it."

A big part of that, she said, is coming up with a protocol on the local level for removing the carcasses.
"In the past, they just left the carcass on the beach to float away," Goethel said. "But if they're possibly carrying something that can contaminate another animal, we have to dispose of them and figure out how we are going to do it."

Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, it's illegal and punishable to pick up, handle or interact with free-swimming, dead or beached marine protected species.

Last year, due to the number of seal deaths, Goethel helped the town of Hampton receive permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to remove the dead seals. Goethel said she wants to make sure that permission is in place again because she said dead seals should not be left on a beach for days at a time.

"We also need to protect our town workers, if they're the ones that will be disposing of the carcasses," Goethel said.

She said the town can do other things on the local level to protect the public, including banning dogs on beaches when there are dead seals on shore.

Goethel said she wants the town to be proactive rather than wait for recommendations from the federal government or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which may take some time to get out.

Goethel said the conditions that existed last year are very similar, including the high birth rate of seal pups and unusually warm water. All that needs to occur, she said, is a hurricane or a nor'easter.

This year's Atlantic hurricane season may see a busy second half, according to an updated hurricane season outlook issued Thursday by NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service. The updated outlook still indicates a 50 percent chance of a near-normal season, but increases the chance of an above-normal season to 35 percent.

In May, NOAA predicted nine to 15 storms during hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. It now expects 12 to 17 named storms and five to eight hurricanes, with two or three likely to be major hurricanes with winds stronger than 111 mph.

Goethel said Hurricane Irene last year caused major inland flooding, which resulted in a huge amount of polluted freshwater coming down the Merrimack and Piscataqua rivers and into the ocean.

She said a nor'easter followed shortly after, causing a storm surge. "Already there is an over-population where the seals are competing for space and food," Goethel said. "The polluted water will cause more stress, making the seals more susceptible to diseases."

The recent research study regarding the seal deaths was made possible by scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, NOAA, New England Aquarium, U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, SeaWorld and EcoHealth Alliance.

The study was performed after seals with severe pneumonia and skin lesions suddenly appeared widespread along the coast in 2011. Most were infants less than 6 months old, and 162 dead or moribund seals were recovered over three months.

Last year's mass die-off is still being investigated by NOAA, which also had experts contribute to the recent report.

Materials from The Associated Press were included in this report.

Monica Allen, of NOAA Communications and External Affairs, called the release of the report an "important" step in the process and NOAA officials will continue to monitor the situation for any signs of another "unusual die-off."


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