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Saving Seals Can Unlock Secret to Saving Oceans

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 marine mammals.

"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."

Scientists 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

What 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.

While 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.

"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

And what's affecting them is pollution from oil and chemical spills, reduction of their food supply, conflicts with fishermen, diseases and global warming.

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.

Rescued animals 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 minutes."

Scientists watch for emergence of new diseases

Matassa explains that the center's research is geared towards identifying new diseases and antibiotic resistances.

"The 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.

"We 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

Besides 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.

Matassa says 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.