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Seal pups stranded or just learning the ropes?


September 22, 2011

Throughout the spring and summer, harbor seals give birth to their pups on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. At first, young pups remain close to their mothers, but as autumn arrives pups rely on them less. At this time, it’s completely normal to see a harbor seal pup alone on a beach or hanging out on a floating platform without mom nearby. For various reasons, about half of all new seals will not survive the first year. Understanding the difference between a harbor seal in distress and a pup learning to fend for itself is critical to their well being.

People play an important role by spending time on the Northwest’s shorelines to help NOAA identify animals that are stranded — meaning that the animal is dead, unhealthy, or alive but unable to carry on without assistance.

A series of volunteer networks comprise NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program in the Northwest—a group dedicated to responding to stranded marine mammals year around. Concerned citizens call-in and share stranding information, including the condition of the animal. If the animal is alive, the people reporting the incident describe the physical condition or behavior of the animal. The network then determines what type of response or assistance is needed. From 2006-2010, the network responded to over 5,100 marine mammal strandings in Washington and Oregon alone, 90 percent of which were stranded seals and sea lions.

Harbor seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and are the most common species to strand in Washington and Oregon.  If you see a seal on the beach, here are some “Share the Shore” tips and ways that you can help the network. 

  1. Always observe from a distance. Avoid approaching closer than 100 yards/meters. This distance will limit the potential for disturbing a resting animal and/or reduce stress. Think about using binoculars or a spotting scope if you want to see the animal closely. 
  2. Keep dogs away at all times.  Harbor seals can carry diseases that are potentially transmittable to you and your pet. The interaction can also stress the seal severely.
  3. Report any injured or dead harbor seal. Please call 1-800-853-1964 and provide information about the location and condition of the animal. Assess the health of the animal externally—does it look injured (entangled in fishing gear or debris or physical wounds) or sick (unusual behavior, lethargic, etc.)? If you happen to have a camera (phone cameras work great) please take photos to share with the stranding network responders.


All marine mammals are protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If you observe incidents of people or pets tormenting, disturbing, or attempting to remove a seal or any marine mammal from the beach, contact the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline (1-800-853-1964) to report a violation.

If you would like to learn more about NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program please visit:

For information about the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program in the Pacific Northwest please visit:

Please contact Megan Morlock at for more information about this story.


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