In a saddening event off the coast of the northeastern US, outbreaks of two viruses have killed hundreds of harbor and gray seals according to NOAA.
During a press call in the end of August, researchers from NOAA announced that seals are dying in high numbers from phocine distemper, a form of avian flu. The scientists at NOAA added that it is normal to see seals die due to circulating diseases, the current rate of infections and deaths are way out of the ordinary and is serious enough to be declared an “unusual mortality event.”
Between July 1 and August 29, 462 dead seals were found washed up on beaches from southern Maine to northern Massachusetts. During the same period, 137 live seals stricken with one or both of the infections were found struggling on the shore. NOAA estimates that hundreds more have likely perished, but the bodies haven’t been found.
“There’s two things that we know. These outbreaks occur very commonly in the Atlantic, in Europe, and also along the US east coast, and their timing seems to be associated with after the pupping season, when there are more animals in close contact,” said Tracey Goldstein, a researcher at the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis.
“In terms of population effects, in Europe, during the ’88 and 2002 outbreaks, which are some of the largest that affected seal populations in Europe, [populations decreased] to about 50 percent of the numbers before the outbreak. So it does have a severe effect, or it can, on the population numbers.”
The necropsies that have been performed on the dead seals have revealed that the diseases are present in the seals lings and brains. The investigation is still ongoing but researchers from NOAA believe they have pinpointed the Isles of Shoals as starting point of the virus breakout. The Isles are located off the shores of Maine and are a full with seals through the summer months.
NOAA scientists currently aren’t concerned about the viruses spreading to other species, though they do note that dogs should be kept away from seal carcasses and distressed seals as they are also susceptible to the phocine virus.