April 27th, 2017 marked the first official Marine Mammal Rescue Day in California! This year we wanted to commemorate the hard work of the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SJCMMSN) operated by the Whale Museum and the SeaDoc Society under the guidance of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, a division of NOAA).

The Marine Mammal Stranding Network operates year-round throughout San Juan County to respond to calls of stranded animals, both live and dead. They receive about 200 calls per year about all sorts of marine mammals, Salish Sea residents and visitors alike, such as harbor and Northern elephant seals, Stellar and California sea lions, harbor and Dall’s porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Their busiest season, though, is harbor seal pupping season, the timing of which varies down the Pacific coast, but in the San Juans it’s June through September.

There are multiple factors which contribute to harbor seal pups being the most commonly-reported strandings in the islands. Firstly, harbor seals are at carrying capacity in the Salish Sea. This means that the ecosystem here can’t support any more harbor seals than it currently does. We estimate there are between 200,000 and 300,000 harbor seals swimming around these waters, meaning that they’re one of the most commonly sighted marine mammals; but, why many of these pups strand has a lot to do with humans.

Healthy adult harbor seals are quite skittish; if they are approached by humans on foot or floating vessel, they will often “flush” or retreat en masse into the water. Pups, meanwhile, have not developed this self-preservation reaction, so if this happens, these tiny seals can be separated from their mothers or even crushed by the moving crowd. If a mother seal has been spooked and fled an area, she will not return to her pup if humans or their dogs are around, and the seal pup can be left to fend for itself. Since harbor seal pups nurse from their mothers for the first month of life, they may not survive the separation.

When the SJCMMSN receives a call about a stranding, they will drive or boat to the scene, if the animal is deceased, the volunteers will collect what’s called Level A data to be sent back to NOAA, this data can include measurements, photos, and samples. If the animal is recently deceased, they’ll collect it to conduct a necropsy at the Friday Harbor Marine Labs to attempt to determine cause of death, which in many animals is more and more due to plastic ingestion.

The Whale Museum's San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network responds to a stranded harbor porpoise
The Whale Museum's San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network responds to a stranded harbor seal.

Photos courtesy of the Whale Museum, Friday Harbor, WA

If the report is for a living animal, volunteers will assess the situation to determine if the animal is in poor health. They’ll make sure beach-goers respect the law of maintaining a distance of 100 yards from marine mammals, and if they deem necessary, they may transport the animal to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center here on San Juan Island, or down to PAWS Wildlife Center near Seattle.

The Stranding Network also conducts a seal pup tagging program to help monitor the health and movements of the little ones. A small numbered tag, called a seal hat, is glued onto the seal’s head and then the Network will know when and where the animal was first seen and can put together a range for that animal based on subsequent sightings. They can also know if a tagged animal re-strands soon after release. The seal hat will fall off the next time the animal sheds its fur.

If you see a stranded animal while visiting the San Juan Islands, help the Stranding Network out by giving their voicemail-based hotline a call at 1-800-562-8832 (NOAA Hotline: 1-866-767-6144) or email hotline@whalemuseum.org. Make sure to leave your name and phone number as well as information about the stranded animal such as its exact location, species, and approximate size, when you saw it, and if it is dead or injured.

The SJCMMSN also sends out a monthly e-newsletter! If you’d like to be included on their mailing list, send an email to hotline@whalemuseum.org. Look out for their signs and brochures around the islands and check them out on Facebook and Twitter @TheWhaleMuseum or on their website! The Stranding Network is also happy to take donations (through the Whale Museum) and volunteers, which make all their work possible!

So, this year, when you’re standing on the water’s edge glancing out on the horizon, whether it be in the San Juan Islands or elsewhere, take a moment to consider your impact on our marine mammal friends and how you can reduce it! For you that might mean keeping your distance from critters, saying “no” to the straw, bringing a reusable water bottle or coffee mug to get your favorite fix, or even switching to biodegradable household products! Let us know on social media how you’re helping to reduce marine mammal strandings and don’t forget to show the Stranding Network volunteers some love!