NOAA scientists Tuesday said three separate reports of harbor seal pups in March from the Stranding Network suggest a pupping season much earlier than in previous years.
April is the earliest previous time that harbor seal pups have been reported in the region, and the pupping season typically begins in May and ends in June.
The three March pups were seen in Gloucester, Plymouth, and in Wells, Maine.
The pup seen in Gloucester seemed physically to have been born at full term, while the other two pups seemed premature, according to Gordon Waring, a marine mammal biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, and Mendy Garron, the stranding network coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Gloucester.
The Gloucester pup was the first harbor seal ever reported in March, Waring said Tuesday. The seal is believed to be the one that spent much of March 29 on Pavilion Beach before heading back into the harbor the next morning, though the Times could not confirm that Tuesday night.
Researchers have been engaged in radio and flipper tagging harbor seals in Penobscott Bay, Maine, and in Chatham during March and April. It's the second year of the tagging project, sponsored by a number of federal agencies, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — BOEMRE, formerly the Minerals Management Service.
BOEMRE is gathering data needed to produce environmental impact statements for offshore wind energy developments along the East Coast.
"While it is not clear why the pupping season began so early this year, since harbor seals tend to use rocky islands, ledges or sandy beaches to give birth or just rest, chances of encountering a seal are greater," Garron said, "so it is really important that you don't approach, handle or feed them.
"Even though they look cute," she added, "these are wild animals, and getting too close puts the animal, humans and pets at risk."
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal to pick up, handle or interact with free-swimming or beached seals and other marine mammals.
Harbor seals found from Canada to New Jersey are one population, with pupping occurring mostly along the coast of Maine, Waring said, adding that there are two large "haul outs" on rocky ledges off Cape Ann.
Waring said the tagging program is more intense and expensive than the aerial surveys that were done before the start of the BOEMRE work with radio and flipper tags last year.
He said he could not estimate the number of harbor seals because no abundance survey has been done since 2001, when the biomass was estimated at 100,000. "That data is too old to be useful," Waring said.
"Harbor seals are carnivorous generalists," according to Macalaster College's Mac Como Zoo website. "They eat small to medium-sized fishes, including cod, mackerel, and herring, as well as octopus, squid, and crustaceans. Shrimp are especially important to young harbor seal pups ... Because harbor seals prey on commercially important species, they often come into conflict with fishermen."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.