But, a Woodbridge township snow plow driver came across one this month on Sixth Avenue in the Port Reading section of the township early one snowy morning.
It tuned out to be an adult harp seal. The police and a township control officer were notified and, according to reports, they dragged the seal to the Woodbridge River.
Seals are Arctic mammals that live on ice flows, but in cold weather, many are carried by currents and swim south looking for food. It's not that rare that seals will make the 1,500 mile journey to the New Jersey coast. Seals often come onto beaches to escape the cold water where they will lay in the sun and build up their oxygen levels.
New Jersey sees more seals in the winter now than in earlier decades. Two colonies live off the Jersey shore in the winter, with one visible from Sandy Hook.
Beach visitors of the human variety should avoid going near the seals and not try to feed them.
Harp seals are part of the family Phocidae, known as the "true" or "earless" seals because they lack external ear flaps. They have a robust body, a relatively small, broad, flat head, and a narrow snout that contains eight pairs of teeth in both the upper and lower jaws.
During breeding in February and March, and when molting in late spring, harp seals aggregate in large numbers of up to several thousand seals on the pack ice. During extensive seasonal migrations, large groups may feed and travel together.
Harp seals are highly migratory. Following the breeding season, adults assemble north of their "whelping" sites to undergo an annual molt before continuing to migrate north to Arctic summer feeding grounds. In late September, after feeding all summer, most adults and some immature seals of the Western North Atlantic stock migrate south along the Labrador coast to the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, generally arriving by early winter. There they split into two groups, one moving into the Gulf and the other remaining off the coast of Newfoundland.
In recent years, the number of sightings and strandings from January to May have increased off the east coast of the United States from Maine to New Jersey. During this time, the Western North Atlantic stock of harp seals is at the most southern point of their migration.
Robert Schoelkopf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, says that the Center has been called this season to rescue seals already. He said that the township officials had tried to put a net around the seal but failed and were finally able to grab the seal with a mouthpiece normally used to capture dogs.
Probably, dragging the seal into the Woodbridge River was not the best course of action. Acting more out of fear for the animal's safety, the treatment might have caused injuries, and also may have put it in an unfamiliar waterway where it would not know how to navigate to open water.
The best sceanrio would be that the seal would swim out to Arthur Kill. If the seal went upstream, it would be in less water, probably without food, and would be more likely to wander on land again.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act bans anybody without proper training from handling seals. The proper course of action would be to to call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (609) 266-0538.
Adopt A Seal through the MarineMammalStrandingCenter.org
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is a private, non-profit organization, started in 1978 with a handful of volunteers and a C.E.T.A. grant. It was founded and is still directed by Robert Schoelkopf. He and his wife, Sheila Dean, along with a small paid staff and volunteers with a wide variety of talents and professional backgrounds, continue to work with the animals. The Center is now located on the barrier island of Brigantine, which borders coastal New Jersey’s largest wildlife refuge.
With a permit and authorization from the state and federal governments, the Center has responded to over 3450 strandings of whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles that have washed ashore over the years. Even though these governments sanction the handling of strandings in New Jersey only, the Center is occasionally called upon to assist with animals in other states. All funding comes through donations, grants, memberships, and fund-raising efforts. Since there is no permanent funding at this time, your donations and membership dollars are vital.
Harp Seals (Early Bird Nature Books)
Harp Seals (Early Bird Nature Books)