As Oregon slowly begins to re-open in the face of the continuing threat from COVID-19, business owners and beach-goers alike are getting used to staying six feet, or roughly two yards, away from each other.

But some beach dwellers need a little more space than that — 50 yards to be exact — and always have done.

Young seal pups venturing onto Oregon’s beaches are at risk from well-meaning people who mistakenly try to rescue them, said Oregon State University marine mammal biologist Jim Rice, who coordinates the statewide Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network headquartered in Newport.

“We’re in the peak of pupping season right now,” he said, “and this past weekend there were several incidents reported of people approaching too closely to seal pups on Oregon beaches.

Rice said people should refrain from touching or approaching the seal pups, which in most cases are not orphaned or abandoned. Seal pups are frequently left on the beach by their mothers, who are out looking for food. The harbor seal pupping season on the Oregon Coast is generally March through June, with a peak in mid-May.

“Newborn pups typically spend several hours each day waiting for their mothers to reunite with them,” Rice said. “Adult female seals spend most of their time in the water, hunting for food, and only come ashore periodically to nurse their pups. But the mothers are wary of people and unlikely to rejoin a pup if there is activity nearby.”

Rice said concerned but uninformed beach-goers will sometimes interfere, picking up seal pups and taking them away from the beaches — and their mothers. A more common threat is hovering by curious onlookers, which can cause stress to the pups and prevents their mothers from returning to them.

“It’s tempting for some people to attempt to ‘rescue’ these seemingly hapless pups,” Rice said. “A pup’s best chance for survival is to be left alone. A dependent pup that’s taken away from its mother will certainly die.”

Bystanders should stay at least 50 yards away and keep their dogs leashed, Rice said.

“After suckling for about four weeks, weaned pups are abandoned by their mothers, left to fend for themselves,” Rice added. “They will continue to come onto beaches periodically to rest as they grow and learn how to catch their own food.”

Even with the best of intentions, Rice said, people can do a great deal of harm. Additionally, people who disturb seal pups, even those who are just trying to help, risk being fined under laws intended to protect marine mammals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits human interaction with seal pups and other marine mammals on the beach.

Anyone who observes incidents of seal pup harassment or animals in distress should call the Oregon State Police at 1-800-452-7888.

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network is an organization comprised of state agencies, universities and volunteers, working together to investigate the causes of marine mammal strandings, provide for the welfare of live stranded animals and advance public education about marine mammal strandings.

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(1) comment


Ahh, the entitlement of people coming to the beaches. With dogs and their feces, and their yapping. With kids and their chasing birds and mammals. With the food that ends up thrown at gulls and waste left on the beaches.

Of course, not all are like this for sure. I have been a naturalist in other locals – Vietnam, Arizona, Spokane, El Paso, Sea of Cortez and other places, and for the most part, if someone knows what he or she is talking about, then people listen to that person – the naturalist – about ecosystems, specific species and food webs.

The problem is not just “guests” to the beaches. It’s the entire improbable venture of Highway 101 so close to the ocean and all those properties overlooking beaches. There are no real wildlife corridors in this area that do not entail head-on's with logging trucks, SUV’s and vehicles.

I have found that a little advice to someone on a beach who might be doing something stupid to harass, let’s say, the harbor seals, can go one of three ways. First, there are those that listen, and then sort of apologize. There is no harm in that. The second sort of reaction is basically, I have my place in the sand, so blanks you and the horse you road into town on. The third type is outright hostility and threats.

I have been in this game of wildlife person for a long long time, since my early days as a young dive master (19) in the Sea of Cortes, then down into the Yucatan, further south. When you have a dude with two tanks strapped to his back, an expensive camera and hard-hitting “get out of the way of wildlife” attitude, for the most part I had a captured audience.

But, since it is a service job, many people I helped with their check out dives felt entitled to come to the boat with a hangover, with knee and elbow pads and with spearguns. You know, on the Island of Cozumel, I am so old that it was a sleepy fishing village when I first went there. Now, it is worse than Mar a Lago giving out free Big Mac’s from Trump in his Bermuda shorts.

Tragedy of the commons, tipping points, carrying capacity, and so much more is what real naturalists understand. The pressures on wildlife are deeper and more much more widely encompassing than just empathetic people seeing a seal pup, alone. It is the well-fed house cats killing millions of song birds a year when all are added up in this country. It is the millions of mammals killed as roadkill on our roads. It is the constant line of traffic snaking down Highway 101.

Good old flushed toilets, spilling oil pan drips, brake pad dust, noise, and more, all enemies of the wildlife!

It’s always been ironic to me to see places like the Central Coast sell itself as this wonderland of sea meeting the forest, when there are huge cancerous like clear cuts all the way to Highway 101.

I appreciate Oregon Coast Today getting my column in, going on a year. Some amazing people I have interviewed who are studying and invariably helping to understand and protect marine species, large and small.

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