A seal named Number 39, rehabbing at Marine Mammals of Maine

Seal Populations Are Booming, and So Are Rescues by Marine Mammals of Maine

With increasingly frequent run-ins between pinnipeds and humans, the nonprofit's passionate crew is constantly on call.

By Alix Morris
Photos by Tristan Spinski
From our November 2023 issue

Number 39 was born on a rocky shoreline ledge in Harpswell. It was mid-April and the air was cool and damp, morning fog lifting into a gunmetal sky. Number 39’s mother had selected the ledge wisely — above the high-tide line, in a protected cove with few predators to worry about. She’d be able to leave her pup for hours on end while she hunted, returning later to nurse him. Within hours of being born, Number 39 was swimming around. It was an ideal situation for a young harbor seal, save for one detail: the human owner of the ledge wanted the seal gone. 

The landowner, whose house was just uphill, wanted to have his dock installed for the summer. The seal pup was in the way. He called the 24-hour hotline at Marine Mammals of Maine, a Brunswick-based nonprofit that responds to reports of stranded seals, whales, dolphins, porpoises, and, even though they’re not mammals, sea turtles too. For two days, the group’s staff encouraged the landowner to let the seal stay, explaining that relocating him would prevent the mother from being able to find him, which would mean almost certain death for a young seal. But the landowner was undeterred, refusing to delay his dock installation another day. He insinuated that if nobody else showed up, he’d move the seal himself. Fearing for the safety of the animal, staffers collected the pup — the 39th stranding they had responded to this year and the first harbor seal of the pupping season admitted to their rehabilitation center.

A young harbor seal is treated at the largest pinniped rehab facility in the northeastern U.S.
A young harbor seal is treated at the largest pinniped rehab facility in the northeastern U.S.

Over the past few decades, gray and harbor seals — Maine’s two resident seal species (with harp and hooded seals being occasional visitors) — have been recolonizing their historic range, thanks largely to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Passed by Congress in 1972, the law bans the killing and harassment of seals and other marine mammals, and violators are subject to a fine, jail time, or both, depending on the severity of the crime. 

But the expanding seal populations have fueled a rise in interactions with humans. According to Marine Mammals of Maine executive director Lynda Doughty, who founded the group in 2011, about half of the seals admitted to the rehab center have suffered from some form of run-in with a human. Mothers of harbor seals frequently leave pups alone on beaches or ledges while they go off to hunt for fish. This natural behavior often gets misinterpreted as abandonment, and beachgoers have tried to aid seals by picking them up and putting them in the water, covering them with a towel or seaweed, or even bringing them home. None of these are good ideas, as they can cause high levels of stress and potentially even lead to the seal’s death. Less invasive forms of harassment, like standing too close to a seal on the beach or approaching it in a boat or kayak, have proven to be just as harmful, says Doughty, as they prevent the animal from being able to rest safely, which is critical for its survival.

For Doughty, a 47-year-old Phippsburg native, harbor seals’ pupping season, between late spring and the middle of summer, is the busiest time of year. Newborn pups are dependent on their mothers for roughly four to six weeks, until they gain enough strength and practice to find food on their own. If they wind up in the rehab center, they require around-the-clock care, with feedings every few hours, meaning lots of late nights and early mornings for Doughty and her team, on a shoestring budget. With zero state funding and federal funding only coming from a competitive grant they apply for each year, at most about a quarter of their budget derives from public sources. As a result, they have to raise the majority of their operating funds from individuals, companies, and private foundations. The costs add up quickly. Between food, medication, transportation, facility management, staff time, and more, rehabbing a single newborn seal pup like Number 39 — a process that usually takes three to four months — can run upwards of $10,000.

Clockwise from above left: stranding assistants Ciara Dunn (dark-gray sweatshirt) and Lexi Wright (light-gray sweatshirt), development coordinator Katy Green (red shirt), and executive director Lynda Doughty work to administer an IV; a harbor seal gets misted with nebulized medication; Doughty checks on one of her patients; assistant stranding coordinator Dominque Walk feeds a pup; a pair of harbor seals share a pool.

Marine Mammals of Maine’s rehab center is the only such facility in the state and has the largest capacity for seals in the entire Northeast. Additionally, Doughty participates in research led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to better understand the behavior, distribution, and health of gray and harbor seals in the Northwest Atlantic. Her group also helps track the spread of wildlife diseases, like last year’s outbreak of avian flu that found its way into seals.

Marine Mammals of Maine is federally permitted to respond to all marine mammals stranded between Kittery and Rockland (with their Bar Harbor–based stranding partner, Allied Whale, covering responses from Rockland to the Canadian border). For Doughty and her team of six full- and part-time staffers, summer interns, and network of volunteers, that’s 2,500 miles of craggy coastline to cover. Much of that area is densely populated, both by humans and seals.

Along the Maine coast, humans and seals go way back. “Seals were always a part of our traditional diet,” says Donald Soctomah, historic-preservation officer for the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Depending on the season, seal, fish, and porpoise were important staples, as were moose, deer, caribou, and other land animals. “We did what we could to survive,” Soctomah says. “The hunt was never to eliminate any species.”

The arrival of European colonists, though, kicked off the long decline of many of the species Native people relied on, and seals were no exception. By the late 1800s, fishermen throughout New England had grown hostile to them, since seals were spotted eating commercially important fish like cod and herring. The governments of Maine and Massachusetts took action by placing bounties on seals, up to $5 for every nose or tail brought to a town clerk’s office. A 2009 study estimated that 72,000 to 135,000 gray and harbor seals were killed in New England waters between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.  

Even after the bounties were ended, reports of fishermen shooting seals on sight continued. By the time President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, gray seals had been effectively eliminated from U.S. waters, and harbor-seal numbers had dwindled substantially. Since then, the turnaround has been extraordinary — federal estimates put populations along the East Coast at 60,000 for harbor seals and 27,000 for gray seals, with most of those seals breeding in Maine and Massachusetts waters. Many fishermen again see seals as, at best, nuisances that occasionally damage gear and, at worst, fish-devouring threats to their livelihood. 

When Doughty founded Marine Mammals of Maine, she was no stranger to local sentiment around seals. She grew up in a tight-knit midcoast fishing community, her partner is a lobsterman, and she has her own commercial lobstering license. A fisherman friend of hers, who was born in 1928 and died last year, often teased her about how he used to shoot seals when he was younger. Doughty would respond by threatening to name a rescued seal after him or to hang a large plaque bearing his name above the rehab center. He admired her work ethic and passion, she says, while she enjoyed hearing about his experiences on the water and the waves of ecological changes he’d witnessed.  

Scenes from the release of two harbor seals back into the wild. A consulting veterinarian and officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approve all releases.

While some perceive seals as the primary culprit behind declining fish stocks, others, including Doughty, believe seals are being used as a scapegoat for a far more complex situation. One particularly controversial question is whether seals are preventing the recovery of cod — a once booming New England fishery that crashed in the early 1990s due to industrialized overfishing. Scientists have been trying to better understand seals’ diets using a variety of methods, including studying the stomach contents of dead seals, analyzing their scat, and observing their feeding habits in the wild. Getting definitive data isn’t easy, largely because gray and harbor seals are neither endangered nor commercially relevant and often fall to the bottom of the priority pile when it comes to limited federal research funds. But the available research suggests that seals in the Gulf of Maine primarily eat hake, flatfish, and sand lances (small, eel-like fish that bury themselves in the sand).

Seals aren’t just predators, though, and their role as prey has lately become another major concern among a different set of humans — beachgoers. Up and down the New England coast, rising seal populations have coincided with increasing numbers of great white sharks, which migrate north each summer. (Shark populations, too, were long suppressed by hunting, until shark-fishing bans were enacted in the late 1990s.) While white sharks consume a variety of fish and marine mammals, their growing presence in nearshore New England waters has been tied to an abundance of blubbery seals, one of their favorite meals. 

Three years ago, a 63-year-old woman was swimming just 20 yards off Harpswell’s Bailey Island when a white shark killed her. It was the first known shark-related fatality in state history, and it drew more public attention to seals. “This is a predator-prey relationship issue,” Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner Patrick Keliher said at a press conference following the attack. “It’s the presence of seals that are really the driver.” 

Doughty’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed — she was voted one of CNN’s 2021 Heroes of the Year, after one of her volunteers nominated her — but she often feels caught between people who hate seals, or at least worry about their impact, and people who love them. Among the thousands of hotline calls Marine Mammals of Maine receives each year, the majority come from people frustrated that the group — which only has so much space in its rehab facility — can’t help every seal in need. On the other hand, the question has been thrown at Doughty many times: if seal populations are thriving, why devote such time and energy to saving individual animals? 

The sun was high overhead as Dominique Walk, assistant stranding coordinator for Marine Mammals of Maine, drove across the Cribstone Bridge to Bailey Island in late May. Earlier that morning, a caller reported that a harbor-seal pup had been swimming and resting around ledges at the northern tip of the island for several days, with no signs of its mother. “I wish they’d called us sooner,” Walk said. “But they said the pup has been swimming, so hopefully that’s a good sign.”

As Walk turned into a parking lot near to where the animal had last been seen, she suddenly went quiet. “Oh my god,” she said. “He’s holding the seal.” A man who looked to be in his mid-30s, oddly dressed in a bright-yellow wet suit, was standing under a tree with a seal clutched under one arm. His other arm was extended awkwardly. He was taking a selfie. The tiny pup was squirming and crying out like a baying hound. A few onlookers stood nearby, seeming uncomfortable about the interaction but unsure of what to do. 

As Walk jumped out of the truck, the man in the yellow wet suit looked up, quickly dropping his selfie arm. “Remember me?” he asked. “I’m the guy who saved the seal last year.” Walk paused briefly as she absorbed the scene, then launched into a series of questions to gather the case details: When was the seal first observed? What was the evidence of abandonment? What was its recent behavior? Simultaneously, she ushered the animal into a large kennel in the back of the truck — its new name would be Number 80. 

Walk then turned to face the man and calmly but firmly reminded him that handling a seal, or any other marine mammal, is a federal offense. He rolled his eyes and shrugged, dramatically held his wrists together as if presenting them for handcuffs, and asked if she wanted him to put it back. “That’s not helpful,” she replied. She seemed to possess a deep well of restraint. “We’re taking this seal. I’m just asking that next time this happens, you call us first. We’re happy to come out and assess the animal.” 

“Fair enough,” the man said. Bystanders thanked her for coming as she got back in the truck, the pup still crying out from its kennel. Driving back to the rehab center, Walk said cases like this are less common along the midcoast than around Maine’s more crowded southern beaches. 

A harbor seal pup, rehabilitated by the Marine Mammals of Maine, is released back into the wild.

But they do happen, she added. Last summer, for instance, a man paddling his kayak off Harpswell encountered a seal pup he believed nearby gulls were eyeing too closely. He put it in his kayak and brought it back to his house. He attempted to feed it, but the seal refused his offerings, which included cat food, milk, and a striped bass larger than the pup itself. By the following afternoon, when it still wouldn’t eat, he called Marine Mammals of Maine to ask for advice. Community-engagement coordinator Lexi Wright answered the phone. “He told me it was in his bathtub at the time,” she recalled. “So I asked him if there was water in the tub. He said, ‘No, I’m not trying to baptize the thing.’” 

Within hours, Wright and a colleague had collected the emaciated pup and brought it back to the center, where it was immediately put on an IV to rehydrate and given time to rest. The team tended to the seal day and night, feeding it a specialized formula, antibiotics, and fluids as they attempted to counter its dehydration, malnutrition, and stress, but it was too far gone. The seal died after a week. 

“It didn’t have to die,” Walk said. She paused, and her eyes widened. “You know, I think it was the same guy. Didn’t he tell us he rescued a seal last year?” 

Number 80 didn’t survive either. Given its condition, staffers told me, the pup might have been abandoned by its mother before any human interacted with it, although handling a stressed and vulnerable seal while taking selfies didn’t help its survival odds. Such losses take a heavy emotional toll on Doughty, as well as her team, but they also seem to steel her resolve. “I do this work because of cases like this,” she said. “These seals didn’t sign up for this, they just picked the wrong beach.”

One reason Marine Mammals of Maine assigns numbers instead of names to seals is the sheer volume of strandings they respond to each year — 400, on average. Another reason is that many of the animals that are in rough enough shape to require rehab won’t survive. “People think we’re hanging out with cuddly seals all day, but the reality is we deal with a lot of heartbreak,” Doughty says. They never take successes for granted.

One afternoon this past August, Walk lifted Number 39 onto a towel, gently restraining the seal as stranding assistant Katie Gilbert clamped a blue plastic tag onto the webbing of his hind flipper, so that he could be identified in the future, should a researcher, rescue group, or anyone else encounter him. After nearly four months of care and many happily gulped fish meals, Number 39 and his pool mate, another young harbor seal, were ready for release. 

Finding a suitable location for the release, away from roaming humans and dogs, was tricky during peak tourist season, but friends of Doughty’s family had offered their private beach for the occasion. The staff carried the two kennels down a short path and placed them on the sand facing the water. As they unlocked the cage doors, Number 39’s pool mate immediately poked her head out to look around, then quickly caterpillar-crawled to the water and submerged herself. Number 39, meanwhile, balked at exiting his kennel. But a few minutes later, after some coaxing from the staff in the form of a gentle tip of the crate, he reluctantly emerged and slowly galumphed his way toward the water.  

As Number 39 cautiously examined his new habitat, Doughty’s mom, Carol, who attends as many seal releases as she can, was sitting on a nearby rock, quietly observing the scene. “I learn from her,” she said, smiling. “Her father and I still don’t understand how she did this.”

The team was laughing and shaking their heads as Number 39 playfully explored a tide pool, slapping the water with his front flipper and burying his face in rockweed. With the constant heartbreak, the exhausting hours, and the divided public opinion around their work, a pair of tallies in the win column clearly meant so much. For a moment, Number 39 looked up at the small crowd of humans celebrating on the beach. Then, turning his large, dark eyes to the sea, this curious, charismatic, wild-once-more creature slid out of the tide pool and into the surf, disappearing without a splash. 

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