Responding to concerns about the safety of a seal pup at Lighthouse Marine Park, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s enforcement branch had local sheriff’s deputies close off Lighthouse Marine Park’s day-use area.
Responders with the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network (WMMSN) started looking for the pup on July 16, following reports of a newborn harbor seal pup arrived at “Marine Park,” originally looking at the park of that name in Bellingham before trying to find it on the Point. By July 19, volunteers located it at the boat launch area, where it was getting too much unwanted attention from onlookers. WMMSN principal investigator Victoria Souze said she instructed responders to relocate the pup 100 yards down the beach to a less public area, but the next morning it was back at the boat launch.
“The public was not obeying the 100-yard rule,” Souze said. “They taped the area off, but with the parking lot behind them and the water in front there wasn’t enough to make a 100-yard perimeter.”
Federal regulations prohibit harassing or interfering with marine mammals such as harbor seals. Seal pups will haul out to rest and warm up, and the infants have not developed wariness like the adults so will not go back in the water if people or animals approach. The mother will return to care for the pup, perhaps at night if the area is being disturbed during the day, according to WMMSN.
“The pup’s only chance of survival is to reunite with mom,” Souze said. “That will only happen on a quiet beach without people around. Mom will not come for her pup if there are people there. We were worried about another evening like [July 19] and what were we going to do?”
The park was closed from 5 p.m. on July 20 until the following morning at 10:30 a.m. The area around the boat launch remained taped off and both volunteers and park ranger Aaron Johnson stayed there to enforce the 100-yard perimeter. “No one can park out front or use the boat launch while the pup is still just right there,” Johnson said.
By the afternoon of July 21, Souze said the pup was becoming lethargic and losing weight, a sign the mother had abandoned the pup due to too much human interaction. “Too many people and too close. If we had caught it that first weekend and kept the public away maybe we could have saved it all of this commotion,” Souze said.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife brought up additional WMMSN volunteers on July 23, when they picked up the pup and took it to a rehabilitation center. The pup will spend at least three months in rehabilitation before hopefully being released to the wild.
The most important thing to ensure mom and baby harbor seals stay healthy and together is to keep your distance if you see a pup at the beach and keep animals away. A call to the WMMSN hotline at 360/966-8845 or to Souze directly at 360/739-6713 will activate the local network of trained responders who will pup sit to make sure others do the same.