number of strandings increasing

Avian flu infecting, killing harbor and gray seals

Thu, 07/21/2022 - 7:00am

    On July 20, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an Unusual Mortality Event for elevated Maine harbor and gray seal strandings from June 1, 2022 to present.

    Seal strandings have been focused along the southern and central coast of Maine from Biddeford to Boothbay (including Cumberland, Lincoln, Knox, Sagadahoc and York counties).

    An Unusual Mortality Event is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. 

    “We now have confirmation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories that samples from both harbor and gray seals have tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1,” according to a NOAA news release. “HPAI is a ‘zoonotic disease’ that has the potential to spread between animals and people (and their pets).”

    There is an ongoing HPAI H5N1 event North America that was first detected in early winter 2021.

    The first detections in Maine waterfowl were in February 2022.

    HPAI H5N1 has now been confirmed in 41 U.S. states and 11 Canada provinces, in commercial poultry, backyard flocks, nearly 90 species of wild birds, eight species of scavenging mammals, and now seals. NOAA Fisheries is continuing to work with our local, state, tribal, federal and international partners in the investigation of HPAI in seals. 

    Declaring an Unusual Mortality Event triggers the development of a response plan and will make available additional resources to respond to any new strandings that occur. 

    In live seals, symptoms include lethargy, coughing, discharge from the eyes and nose, seizures, and death. Seals with neurological signs including seizures are dying quickly, usually within hours.

    If you see a sick, injured, or dead seal in Maine, please call the Maine Marine Animal Reporting Hotline at (800) 532-9551. To report seal strandings south of Maine, please call the NOAA Fisheries Stranding Hotline: (866) 755-6622.

    The health risk posed by avian flu to the general public is low; however, precautions are recommended. Please do not touch live or dead seals, don’t allow pets to approach the seal, and observe the animal from a safe distance of 150 feet (safe for you and the animal). Please wait patiently for further guidance from trained responders.