As harbor seals are being born in the Pacific Northwest this time of year, marine mammal advocates up and down the West Coast are urging people not to touch or pick up pups that come up on beaches and shorelines to rest.
In the past, well-meaning people have illegally picked up seal pups in Oregon and Washington thinking they were abandoned or needed help, and have resulted in seal pup deaths.
"It is an ongoing issue throughout the entire West Coast," said Justin Greenman, NOAA's assistant stranding coordinator for California. In recent years, with high death rates and strandings for sea lions and fur seals off the California coast, there have been some cases of people wanting to pick up and rescue sea lions, he said.
"We try to get the word out to leave them be," he added. Selfies with seals or sea lions are also a growing problem.
People's impulse is to rush in and help, but it's better to let nature run its course, she said. The risk in taking these animals off the beach is that adult seals may abandon their pups.
"The best chance they have to survive is to stay wild," Wilkenson said.
NOAA has launched a "Share the Shore" campaign to remind beachgoers to leave marine mammals alone, to stay at least 100 yards away and reduce other disturbances, such as keeping dogs on leashes. It's illegal to harass, disturb or try to move young seals or other marine mammals.
Wilkinson says they typically see six to 10 illegal animal handling cases a year, but the trend this year is concerning because they're happening earlier in the season and within a wider area.
Harbor seal pups are born along the West Coast, typically from February to May in California and from late spring to summer in the Northwest. They use beaches, docks and other shoreline areas to rest, regulate their body temperatures or wait for their mothers, who typically are nearby but may not come near the pups if there are too many people or other disturbances.
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