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Fourth of July no picnic for wildlife - stay away from seal haulouts

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The Fourth of July and summer boating season is definitely no picnic for wildlife, particularly newborn seal pups. Fireworks and beach parties cause pups to be abandoned every year. This is a reminder that when you venture out to the beach, whether by trail or boat, please respect animals’ space and need for quiet.

Harbor seal haulouts are full of pregnant females and newborn pups in South Puget Sound and pups can be found all along the Washington coastline and inland waterways. Harbor seals also use jetties, breakwaters and log booms for haulouts. Please stay a minimum of 100 yards away.

Pups pay a terrible price for human disturbance. The pup shown here was found last year, starving on Cutt’s Island along with two other emaciated pups and several dead ones. All had been abandoned by their mothers because boaters disrupted the seal colony on this small island near Gig Harbor. A day of boating fun for people can be a death sentence for seal pups.

If you find a spot for your picnic on a beach near a harbor seal, please move your picnic to another beach. There are reports of people with blankets and coolers surrounding a lone seal pup - finally calling the stranding network wondering why the mother did not return. A harbor seal mom, shy and wary of humans, will abandon her pup if people and dogs are around! Use common sense and help protect wildlife from harassment.

If you are boating or kayaking, please stay far away from resting harbor seals. In 2010 we documented a speeding boat intentionally flushing seals from a protected island rookery with a sign posted “closed harbor”. In the photo below, you can see the boat scaring hundreds of seals from the beach, including pregnant females and many newborn pups. A female was giving birth right at that very moment and, terrified, she left her newborn pup, still in a bloody birth sac, alone on the deserted beach. The mom had no time to memorize the scent or call of her pup, which often leads to abandonment. Thankfully, a full 20 minutes after the boat left with the people onboard laughing, the mom returned to nurse her pup. More often than not, that pup would have been abandoned and slowly starved to death.

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It is not a laughing matter to harass seals. It is a matter of life and death for seal pups and a violation of federal law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This incident was investigated by NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement. Harassment is not just poking with sticks (yes, we have witnessed that) or scaring an animal back into the water - any change in an animal’s behavior caused by your presence is considered a “take” by law. Many state parks on islands in the San Juans and South Puget Sound have harbor seal rookeries - do not approach animals by boat or by landing nearby. Please, be respectful and move your party elsewhere. If you see a violation, please call NOAA Office for Law Enforcement: 1-800-853-1964.

Boat launches and docks can have newborn or weaned pups sleeping on them or nearby, often in danger from propeller strikes or being run over by boat trailers. In some coastal areas, people are allowed to drive vehicles on the beach itself. On July 4th weekend in 2011, a pup was run over and killed on the beach at Ocean Shores - other animals, sick or weak and unable to move quickly, have been run over on beaches at Westport (California sea lion pup), Long Beach Peninsula (California sea lion), and Twin Harbors (adult harbor seal) at different times of the year. Please report any pup (or adult) that is at a dangerous location or being harassed to your local stranding network.

Please be aware of your surroundings and give animals a break this holiday. Respect that harbor seals need to rest and nurse. Celebrate responsibly and you just might save the life of a seal pup. Fireworks are a moment’s thrill that can have heartbreaking consequences.
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