U.S. marine mammal researchers probe mystery deaths

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

Andrew Zacks is a sea lion specialist with the Humane Society of the United States. He is currently based in Boston, Massachusetts, part of a team that supports American marine mammals and sea turtles. Zacks’ work is also focused on coastal water pollution and disasters.

By Andrew Zacks

If a group of marine animals starts to die out at an alarming rate, you might expect to hear about it. But when a breeding colony of harbor seals off the coast of Maine was experiencing such a mass die-off that, by the end of March, 47 of the 8,800 harbor seals in its midst had perished, they weren’t talking.

The usual suspects — pollution, disease, invasive species — were ruled out by a state review, according to the Associated Press. Scientists think something else may be driving the colony’s decline, as reported by CNN last month. Is it a growing problem with human encroachment, something as seemingly unthinkable as a bird flu pandemic — or something far worse?

With no obvious leading suspect, Zacks approached the cause with passion and advocacy. “What kind of killer would do this to a group of animals that have just come together? It’s hard to believe,” he said. “It’s so counterintuitive. We have colonies of animals here that call Maine home and they’re all killed off just in a single month.”

Zacks works with several state-based partners, including the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey program, known as CAOS, as a field-based researcher. With his support, a team of volunteers combed this volatile coastline — even daydreaming about this natural spectacle: “I remember a few volunteers actually made the effort to try to catch one, bring it back to shore and release it so it can hopefully return to the wild.”

The CAOS volunteers set up transmitters on the seals in March, which will transmit their movements and habits for researchers to track for years to come.

“I was taken aback by the geography of this event,” said Zacks. “It was on a waterway we consider a peninsula, and you have 13 miles of inlet and three miles of island channel. That’s like an abyss in itself. What makes it worse is that as you move out into the open water, it’s crowded. You have whales, you have seals, you have harbor seals, and then we have piping gulls and terns and right around there’s a port.”

Zacks admits this is just a snapshot in time and his team has yet to analyze any of the data that the transmitters will give them.

“We can’t say what’s causing it, but we’re hoping to be able to tell.”

Leave a Comment