When the chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission, a federal
conservation agency, testified before Congress in 2007, he spoke of the
importance of the interdependency between growing human populations and
"In the face of competing priorities," Dr.
John Reynolds told the lawmakers, "societies must be willing to invest
in actions needed to ensure healthy marine ecosystems and marine mammal
stocks, even in the absence of perfect information."
at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center at the University of New
England are trying to increase the information we have so we can take
those needed actions. And they believe that one of the key gauges of
marine health centers on seals, which can be found in every ocean
around the world.
"The environment is very delicate. The seals play a great part," observes center coordinator Keith Matassa.
Seals, people have much in common
he and his colleagues learn will help the 1.5 billion people who will
be living in coastal regions by the year 2050, eating, washing and
earning a living from the world's oceans.
Located in Biddeford,
Maine, on the north Atlantic coast, the University of New England is
the only school in the country with veterinary and marine programs
located together on one campus. The small rehabilitation center is
staffed in large part by students. It's a member of the Northeast
Stranding Network, the only marine mammal rescue program in Maine and
an important resource for coastal states farther south, as well.
one of the center's main missions is to rescue seals, scientifically
known as pinnipeds, it is also a research facility. Matassa says its
work can help people, because we have a lot in common with seals.
are top predators in the food chain," he points out. "They eat fish. We
eat fish. A lot of what they're feeling the effects of, we can see the
effects of in humans. So it's nice to be able to study those animals in
a controlled setting, like the marine rehab center, and seeing what
really is affecting them out in the wild."
Seal sicknesses point to environmental ills
what's affecting them is pollution from oil and chemical spills,
reduction of their food supply, conflicts with fishermen, diseases and
Many seal species spend part of their lives in
Arctic waters, and thinning ice sheets have reduced the habitat they
need for resting, hunting and even birthing. Those conditions often
push seals farther south, in poor health.
often arrive at the center sick, weak and undernourished. When they
first come in, a staff member takes non-invasive blood, mucus and fecal
samples. The samples will reveal not only the animal's condition, but
also information about the environment and ultimately how those
conditions could affect humans. Matassa compares the set-up to a
hospital emergency room.
"We're just a little bit quicker than
the regular human emergency room, but we can do everything they can do.
We have blood machines, blood setups, so we can actually bring blood in
here, spin it down and have results back to the vets in about 16 to 20
Scientists watch for emergence of new diseases
Matassa explains that the center's research is geared towards identifying new diseases and antibiotic resistances.
diseases we're interested in are morbillivirus - which is a canine
distemper which affects seals -, leptospirosis, brucella, West Nile
virus, eastern equine encephalitis, toxoplasmosis, diseases along that
line. Bacterial diseases, viral diseases, things that we can test [for
in] the seals without being invasive in our research."
He adds that seals can contract many human diseases, including pneumonia and West Nile virus.
In the lab, they also test local water samples.
get all of our water out of the Saco River, and we look at what's in
the Saco River as far as fecal pollution, antibiotic resistant
bacterium that might be in the river," Matassa says.
Researchers work to save seals' lives
epidemiological research, a large part of Matassa's work is centered on
decreasing seal mortality rates. Only a quarter of seal pups will make
it to their second birthday.
"We will do just about anything
to try to get an animal through the rehab center and get it better and
get it a second chance, including doing MRIs and CAT scans, working
with other facilities, veterinarians and bringing in the best experts
in the field, to treat the animals."
During the later months
of the year, only about 20 to 30 percent of the baby seals that come
into the center survive, because they are so sick when they arrive. But
in the summer months, when rescued animals are healthier, the
survivability rate goes up to 70 or 80 percent.
we still have a lot to learn about seals and all the mysteries they
hold when it comes to helping humans gauge the health of the
environment. He hopes the work being down at the University of New
England will help reveal the answers to improving the health of marine
animals, the oceans and ourselves.