Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Seals on the Beach

Young harbor seal seen in Long Branch, NJ  via
Despite a warmer than usual winter, not many humans are on New Jersey’s beaches yet. But the colder weather is when some other species have a "beach day."

There are beach-lounging mammals called pinnipeds that like the colder days on the sand. Pinniped literally means “fin-footed” and classifies amphibious marine mammals including seals, sea lions, fur seals, and walrus.

We do get true seals (not sea lions) on our coast mostly from November through April. The most likely one for you to see is a harbor seal, followed by the larger gray seal, the harp seal, and the rarest in our area would be the hooded seal.

I'm sure most beach wanderers would be excited to see a seal on the beach these days. But seals are very sensitive to disturbances while they are "hauled-out" (on land) because they have pretty limited mobility on land and feel much more threatened.

Boaters, beachcombers and even aircraft flying over can send a whole colony back to the ocean, which expends their energy and might even cause a colony to abandon a location.

There are a few more reasons to give seals a wide berth (stay at least 50 yards  away). First, it is against the law to approach a wild seal, touch, feed or harass it. Second, though they may look like a Disney character, seals have a powerful bite and mouths that contain enough bacteria to guarantee a nasty infection.

None of the seal species found in our waters or on our beaches are classified as endangered or threatened, but they are all protected under the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Their "predators" on land in NJ are harassing humans (intentional or not). In the ocean, sharks are their greatest threat.

The number of seals appearing on our coast each winter has been increasing and New Jersey has the largest seal haul-out location along the US Atlantic coastline south of Long Island, NY.

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) work to identify and protect wintering colonies and haul-out areas used by seals along our coastline.

Not all seal visits are to the beach. This harp seal was found
visiting Woodbridge, NJ in 2010

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