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Harbor Seals Died along the New England coastline



By Charles McMahon

cmcmahon@seacoastonline.com

August 03, 2012 2:00 AM

PORTSMOUTH — Scientists studying why more than a hundred harbor seals died along the New England coastline last year have released a new report that shows the seals perished as a result of a new strain of avian flu capable of being transmitted from birds to mammals, possibly humans.

The report — Emergence of Fatal Avian Influenza in New England Harbor Seals — was released Tuesday by a team of experts tasked with uncovering why 162 young seals turned up dead from southern Maine to northern Massachusetts last fall.


Safety tips

What to do if you see a seal:

Stay at least 150 feet away: A pup’s mother may be near, posing a safety risk.

Don’t handle the seal: People and pets should be kept away.

Call a local marine mammal stranding network member: Visit NOAA’s Northeast Region Web site (www.nero.noaa.gov/prot_res/stranding) for local contact information, or call NOAA Fisheries Service’s stranding hotline at (866) 755-6622

Health risks: According to NOAA, a disturbed seal can bite and transmit diseases such as distemper virus and rabies to humans and pets. In other instances, a disturbed seal may abandon its pup to flee an approaching human or dog. If this happens and the pup is nursing, it will not survive. However, a female seal is more likely to return to reclaim her pup if the disturbance near the pup goes away. Observing these animals from a distance is the best way to avoid disturbing them or being injured.

Federal law: It is illegal and punishable by law to pick up, handle or interact with free-swimming, dead or beached marine protected species. This includes seals, whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and manatees. Penalties for harassing these animals can be up to $50,000 and a year in jail.

Hotline: To report incidents of people or pets tormenting, disturbing or attempting to remove a seal from a beach, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline, (800) 853-1964.

In the report, researchers identify the cause of death as an influenza A virus “H3N8,” a new strain of the bird flu that can jump from birds to marine mammals, such as seals and sea lions.

The report was made possible by scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New England Aquarium, the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, SeaWorld and EcoHealth Alliance.

Research findings

Simon Anthony, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, was the lead author of the study.

“When initial tests revealed an avian influenza virus, we asked the obvious question: how did this virus jump from birds to seals?” Anthony said.

The report states that the emergence of new strains of influenza virus is always of great public concern, especially when the infection of a new mammalian host has the potential to result in a widespread outbreak of disease.

“This outbreak is particularly significant, not only because of the disease it caused in seals but also because the virus has naturally acquired mutations that are known to increase transmissibility and virulence in mammals,” the report states.

W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and John Snow, professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, said the findings reinforce the importance of wildlife surveillance in predicting and preventing pandemics.

“HIV/AIDS, SARS, West Nile, Nipah and influenza are all examples of emerging infectious diseases that originated in animals,” he said. “Any outbreak of disease in domestic animals or wildlife, while an immediate threat to wildlife conservation, must also be considered potentially hazardous to humans.”

Katie Pugliares, a senior biologist with the New England Aquarium’s rescue program, also assisted in the new report.

Pugliares said that while the study indicated that the newly identified virus can be passed to mammals, so far there is no indication that humans are capable of contracting it.

“We don’t believe this particular strain is harmful to people because of the number of personnel we had handling them — nobody got sick,” she said.

Pugliares said at this point experts believe H3N8 is a mutation from a strain of bird flu, which is something she said happens, but only on rare occasions.

“Viruses mutate so they can jump from one host to the next,” she said. “What’s alarming is that it was able to mutate and adapt to mammals.”

How die-off began

Pugliares said she remembers exactly when the surge in seal deaths became apparent last fall. It was a Wednesday evening and a beachgoer in Seabrook had called in to report a dead seal on the beach, according to Pugliares.

“(The beachgoer) took a photo and sent it to us,” she said. “We immediately saw that something interesting was going on with that one animal.”

Red flags began to pop up when experts noticed the dead seal appeared to be in good condition, Pugliares said. Shortly after receiving the image from the beachgoer, Pugliares said a staff member from New England Aquarium was dispatched to Seabrook to see what else he or she could learn.

While en route to the beach, Pugliares said the Boston-based aquarium got a phone call from an employee at a surf shop in Rye reporting that surfers were bumping into dead seals floating in the water.

When experts arrived at the local beach, Pugliares said six dead seals were found scattered across the sand. While dead seals washing ashore is considered routine, Pugliares said it was clear something strange was happening.

“The fact that there were six on one beach in one day, and they were the same species and same age-class and all in good condition indicated to us that something interesting was going on,” she said.

As the weeks progressed and the number of dead seals washing ashore doubled, tripled and then quadrupled, Pugliares said more experts were brought in on the investigation to help test the seal carcasses retrieved from beaches.

Then, in December, Pugliares said experts discovered that an Influenza A-type virus was responsible for the seal deaths.

“It was at that point that we knew this was an infectious disease,” she said.

Scientists tasked with identifying the virus then determined that the next closest flu came from a species of birds that was identified in 2002.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration then declared the seal deaths an “unusual mortality event,” which prompted attention at the national level and eventually resulted in the recent study.

On the lookout

The late summer months are perhaps the busiest times for seal strandings on the New Hampshire coastline, according to Pugliares.

Because baby harbor seals are just beginning to ween from their mothers and are no longer dependent on them to survive, aquarium staff is keeping a close eye on the shoreline, she said.

While dead seals are already being reported on beaches, which Pugliares said is common, researchers are on alert.

“We are definitely taking a closer look at what’s going on out there,” she said.

Pugliares said what happens in the coming months will hopefully shed more light on the investigation.

“The study is continuing in order to see the extent of this particular virus and whether it is in the current population,” she said.

As experts continue to study the virus responsible for last fall’s seal die-off, Pugliares said it is imperative that people keep away from the animals should they wash ashore dead or alive.

“Not only is it illegal, but you never know what these animals could be carrying,” she said of getting too close to the marine mammals.

Last year’s mass die-off is also still being investigated by NOAA, which also had experts contribute to the recent report.

Monica Allen, of NOAA Communications and External Affairs, called the release of the report an “important” step in the process.

“We’re happy to see this research,” she said. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and, as the seals enter the pupping season, we’ll be monitoring for any signs of another unusual die-off.”

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