On Sunday afternoon, an Edgartown woman — who asked to not be named — was walking along State Beach and found a distressed, injured harp seal. She called a couple of resources, and was told it would be taken care of. The next day, the seal was still in the same spot on the sand.
Living on an Island, situations like this with marine life are bound to happen. Being far from necessary resources to handle them, though, is why dilemmas — ethical and rational — are inevitable. Should you walk by the injured animal and simply let nature take its course, or do you stop and try to save it?
Conflicted and wanting to help, the woman used a sheet that she found to slide it to the access point of the beach, in hopes that passersby would see it and stop to help.
Her plan worked, and soon cars stopped along the bend of Beach Road to help. One of those people was Dolores Borza, who noticed a group of people standing around the hurt animal, and wanted to help in any way she could, she said.
“I made all sorts of calls,” she told the Times. “The comm center, environmental police, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the aquarium, the Coast Guard, and even a department for marine wildlife in California.” Borza said none of them could help; the Coast Guard said it could only help if the animal was in the water. Borza said, “That made me want to put [the seal] in the water just so they would come help!”
Borza said she knows you’re not supposed to touch them, and she said neither her nor any of the other people who stopped to help did. She said they simply wanted to help.
Another person who stopped to help was Colin Casey, who used to work for the National Marine Fisheries Service. He said he’s seen this happen many times before, and most of the time it doesn’t end well.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted in 1972. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, all marine mammals are protected under the act. In disaster situations, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has emergency response teams in place to help rescue animals, including marine mammals. But in everyday circumstances, rescue teams are not in place to help.
The NOAA website says it’s understandable to want to rescue an animal if you see it hurt, but if you come across marine life in distress, “that is likely not be the best option for the animal or the person trying to help.” The website explains, “These wild animals may be sick, injured, disoriented, or starving. They could have been exposed to pollution or a natural toxin, entangled in fishing gear, struck by a vessel, or infected by a disease or parasite. Their reactions may be unpredictable, and it can be dangerous to try to touch or move them. Only trained and authorized responders should assist marine animals in distress.”
Jennifer Goebel of NOAA said in non-disaster situations, people who find injured marine animals should call the NOAA hotline, where their request will be processed with the closest stranding network able to help, which is Marine Mammal Rescue in Nantucket. Goebel said this particular incident was reported to the New England NOAA department, and it was relayed to the Nantucket office to see if they could send someone to help. Martha’s Vineyard currently does not have a stranding network, so no one was available to respond immediately to the report. Goebel said since seals are not endangered and because of the coming blizzard, they weren’t able to get someone to the Island to help. “Our goal is to respond and help, but that’s not always possible,” she said.
As concerned bystanders came and went, the woman who first found the seal sat in the sand beside it, while Borza and Casey continued to help. After a while, an Edgartown police officer arrived at the scene, but remained in the patrol car, and left after a few minutes. Determined to find help, Borza continued to make calls.
Edgartown Police Sgt. Craig Edwards told The Times that when they get a call such as that, they contact the New England Aquarium. “Usually we’re told to stay away from it,” he said.
If you come across a marine animal in distress, call the New England region NOAA stranding and entanglement hotline at 866-755-NOAA.