Harbor seal pups are now being born on north-central California beaches, and NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary advises beachgoers not to interact with pups they might find on shore. Newborn harbor seal pups, born in late winter and spring, could suffer permanent harm if someone unauthorized for marine mammal rescue were to move or interact with them. Seals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and to interfere with one could incur legal penalties. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has rescue personnel trained and authorized to recognize a seal in distress, and rescue it. Pupping season is March 1 to June 30.
Each year healthy seal pups are separated from their mothers by people who mistake them for orphans. Harbor seal mothers sometimes leave pups unattended on shore while feeding at sea, then return to nurse them. The presence of a person or dog near a pup could prevent a mother from reuniting with her young, and such disturbance can result in the pup’s death. Repeated disturbances around a seal rookery can also contribute to overall lower birth rates, reduced habitat use, and eventual abandonment of haul-out sites. NOAA advises keeping at least 300 feet away, but even at that distance disturbance can occur.
“The rule of thumb is, if a seal reacts to your presence by raising its head, you are too close,” said Jan Roletto, Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary biologist. “Avoid eye contact and back away slowly until it no longer notices you.”
San Francisco-based Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which manages sanctuary waters from lower Mendocino County south to Point Año Nuevo, advises concerned beachgoers to report suspected orphaned or injured pups to a park ranger, or to one of the following facilities, to assess the need for rescue:
• The Marine Mammal Center 415-289-SEAL / 289-7325 (24 hrs.)
• Pt. Reyes National Seashore 415-464-5170 (24 hrs.)
• NOAA Enforcement Hotline 800-853-1964 (24 hrs.)
Approximately one-fifth of the state’s harbor seals live in the Greater Farallones sanctuary. The largest breeding grounds in Marin County are in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore at Drake’s Bay/Limantour Beach. Outside the seashore, Bolinas Lagoon and Tomales Bay are prime spots. In San Mateo County, rookeries are at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and Bean Hollow; in Sonoma County at Jenner, Sea Ranch and Fort Ross.
Harbor seals haul out in groups ranging from a few to several hundred. Females generally give birth to a single pup, fully dependent, and which must nurse for three to four weeks. Pups can swim almost from birth.
Designated in 1981, NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 3,295 square miles of ocean and coastal waters beyond San Francisco’s Golden Gate. The sanctuary supports an abundance of species including the largest breeding seabird rookery in the contiguous United States, white sharks, and endangered blue and humpback whales.
On the Web:
Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary: http://farallones.noaa.gov
Greater Farallones Association: www.farallones.org
NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov