Seacoast Science Center coming to seals' rescue

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Local volunteers to take over task from New England Aquarium

By Nick B. Reid

Hampton Union, December 27, 2013

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

 HAMPTON — The Seacoast Science Center will soon be in charge of organizing the rescue of seals that wash up on local shores, marking the first time a New Hampshire-based group has served in this role.

Seacoast Science Center President Wendy Lull said she learned recently that her group will take over the New Hampshire responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Stranding Network starting Jan. 1.

That means when a grey seal, harp seal, hooded seal or, most likely, a harbor seal washes up on the 238 miles of New Hampshire ocean and river shores or the Isles of Shoals, the Seacoast Science Center will get the call. A volunteer will report to determine whether the seal is healthy, sick or requires transport to the University of New England seal hospital, or if it's dead and possibly needs to be brought to the New England Aquarium, which would perform a necropsy and collect data.

A New England Aquarium team, based in Quincy, Mass., has been the standing authority since 1978, Lull said.

Lull recently appeared before the Hampton Board of Selectmen, which authorized her to place new signs in town to educate people about what to do and who to call if they find a seal. The majority of seal sightings in New Hampshire occur on Hampton Beach, Lull said.

"Part of what the science center is able to do as a local responding organization is work with each of the eight Seacoast communities to help educate people about what we call 'good seal etiquette,'" Lull said.

The team of responders will include many familiar faces. Several members of the Seacoast Science Center and Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation were already volunteering.

"It's a nice transition," said Ashley Stokes, who has been the Seacoast Science Center's event coordinator, but as of Jan. 1, she is shifting to a new responsibility as the rescue coordinator.

Stokes has been volunteering as a rescuer for more than seven years.

"Being in New Hampshire, we're closer to a lot of the response areas. We'll be able to dedicate the time for outreach, just educating the public," she said. "For the New England Aquarium, that was kind of a tough thing for them because they're far away."

As a responder, Stokes said she has seen some of the side effects of an untrained public trying to help distressed seals. One Route 1A homeowner brought a live seal into his house about two years ago, she said.

"People want to do the right thing. They just don't know exactly what the right thing is," she said.

Already, local volunteers are signing up to help the cause. Hampton Fire Chief Chris Silver is one of them. He said his daughter, who is studying conservation law enforcement in college, inspired him. He enjoyed helping her complete projects for marine biology classes she took in high school, and now, they often discuss coastal wildlife.

"Having lived on the coast in New England my entire life, I saw this as an opportunity to help protect some of our coastal marine life," he said.

Hampton selectmen unanimously granted the science center's application to post signs, and said Town Manager Fred Welch will help the group achieve its goals.

"I think it's absolutely great that the response is coming locally as opposed to out of Boston," Hampton Selectmen Chairman Dick Nichols said.

Lull said she has also received a positive response from Rye officials.

More than just benefiting New Hampshire, the shift will allow the New England Aquarium to allocate more resources to a project dear to it.

Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said there are four species of sea turtles in New England that are all threatened and endangered. While they don't appear in New Hampshire, they are commonly found along Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

"We're taking out limited rescue resources and dollars and focusing them mostly on sea turtles," LaCasse said.

In addition, LaCasse said, the aquarium is increasing its professional expertise in monitoring disease in marine mammal populations by adding a necropsy specialist. Freshly dead seals, which Lull termed as "a very exciting kind of dead," will still be brought to the aquarium, which archives their tissues and helps determine causes of death, such as the flu variant that was responsible for the deaths of 162 harbor seals in 2011.

"It's actually an expansion of the effort that led to our being able to detect that variant of the flu virus that was found in Rye two years ago," LaCasse said.

As of Jan. 1, the new rescue hotline will be 997-9448. Until then, it remains (617) 973-5247.

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