The staff and volunteers of Allied Whale, a marine mammal research group based in Bar Harbor, Maine, have been studying and promoting the conservation of cetaceans and seals since 1972. It's one of several groups along the Northeast coast "deputized" by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to respond to animal strandings. Despite their intense dedication to helping marine mammals, however, these and other recovery professionals are starting to ask themselves whether saving a stranded seal pup is always the right decision.
One view is that helping these individual seals recover and return to the wild may help maintain harbor seal populations, which are currently quite abundant. But Allied Whale researchers Rosemary Seton and Sean Todd told me that in the marine mammal recovery community, a view is emerging that some rescues may be undercutting natural selection -- by returning animals to the gene pool that might otherwise have been naturally culled out.
Sometimes it's quite clear why a seal pup needs help: Seton and Todd say that when an animal's distress has been caused by human actions, such as an injury from a boat strike, or entanglement in nets or plastic garbage, there's no question that rescuers should come to its aid. But often the pups end up abandoned due to a mysterious "failure to thrive," lacking some inner energy or outward ability to make it in the wild.
However tragic it seems to human observers, these are wild animals (and in the case of harbor seals, not an endangered or threatened species), and letting demonstrably weaker individuals die off, as they would if human intervention wasn't an option, might strengthen the overall herd.
This is a very challenging point of view, obviously, and I didn't get the impression that it's a settled argument within the profession. Changing how stranded seal recovery is done would probably be difficult, as well, because as Seton said, "When you respond to a stranding, you're not responding to the animal. You're responding to the human." Seals can't make phone calls to emergency services, after all. The human who has called the stranding hotline is unlikley to be terribly interested in the nuances of evolutionary biology. If a big-brown-eyed seal pup is in distress, or seems to be, then someone should help it, and that is that.
As researchers learn more about Atlantic coast harbor seals, the question is likely to become even more scientifically complex, because the definition of human-caused injury may change. Data gathered over the past decade show that these harbor seal populations are carrying enormous body burdens of human-propelled toxins, like flame retardants and PCBs. This contamination may be suppressing their immune systems and contributing to an animal's failure to thrive as a juvenile. "The science in that regard is very young," says Todd. But it could factor into the species' survival, and with it how Allied Whale and other groups respond to stranded marine mammals.
Photos, above: Seal exhibits at Allied Whale's Whale Museum, in Bar Harbor, Me. Also, due to the vagaries of logistics and weather, the closest I have gotten to wild adult seals on this particular field trip.