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Marine Mammal Rescuers In Maine Perplexed By Dead Seals

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, now to an odd story from Maine. More than 180 dead or distressed seals have washed onto Maine beaches this month. Marine mammal rescuers are scrambling to find out why. And this week, federal scientists announced the first clues to a possible cause. Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight reports.

PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: For nearly two weeks, marine mammal rescuers in Maine have been working almost nonstop to respond to calls about seals washing ashore. Some are sick, but the vast majority are dead. On this day, a crew responds to a call about a male seal that washed up along this jagged stretch of coastline near Nubble Lighthouse in York. The tide washes over the spot where he was found. Kat King of Marine Mammals of Maine says the seal looks emaciated and is missing some fur.

KAT KING: He's got a lot of really peculiar-looking wounds on him, which we're not quite sure where that came from. They just look - they kind of stand out to me as that's more than just being battered around on a rock possibly.

WIGHT: Unlike this seal, most of the dead seals they've found have looked otherwise healthy. The deaths have also hit all age groups, which adds to the mystery of the cause. Sarah Perez says this mystery extends beyond Maine to Massachusetts.

SARAH PEREZ: Especially in August, starting around the 12 of August, we've seen an increase in seal strandings along both the New Hampshire and the Northern Mass. coast.

WIGHT: Perez is a rescue assistant with the New Hampshire Seacoast Science Center. Typically in August, she responds to about 15 dead and distressed seals. This month, she's already seen four times that amount.

PEREZ: Another difference is that we're getting what we call clusters. And so we're getting deceased seals that are washing up - a number of them - on one specific beach.

WIGHT: Federal scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are investigating. Spokesperson Jennifer Goebel says they've finished preliminary tests on the first set of samples taken by marine mammal rescuers.

JENNIFER GOEBEL: And we've gotten results back that are positive for either avian influenza or what we call phocine distemper virus.

WIGHT: Avian flu and distemper have been linked to high numbers of seal deaths in the past. Goebel says it's too early to tell whether the diseases are the primary cause of this year's deaths, and testing will continue.

At the Marine Mammals of Maine Triage Center, a sick seal that was rescued when the spike first hit appears to be on the rebound as she splashes in a small pool and eats herring for breakfast. Executive director Lynda Doughty says this seal is lucky. They're not taking in any more because they're worried about spreading infection at their triage center. But her team - a staff of two, a few interns and 30 volunteers - will continue to respond to dead seals and gather samples to try to find answers.

LYNDA DOUGHTY: So is this one of those ways that the population regulates itself? Which it could well be.

WIGHT: Even if this turns out to be a normal outbreak, Doughty says seals are bioindicators. Understanding what's happening to them can help us know what's happening in the ocean and its broader implications for other species. For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight in Lewiston, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patty is a graduate of the University of Vermont and a multiple award-winning reporter for Maine Public Radio. Her specialty is health coverage: from policy stories to patient stories, physical health to mental health and anything in between. Patty joined Maine Public Radio in 2012 after producing stories as a freelancer for NPR programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She got hooked on radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and hasn’t looked back ever since.