Marine mammal facility is shut down in Maine

As usually at this time of the year, the sounds of seals would ricochet off the walls of the Marine Animal Lifeline facility in the U.S. state of Maine.

Instead, the medical ward where sick and malnourished seals received intravenous treatment and the pools where they learned to hunt fish are empty. The gates are padlocked. And other organizations are scrambling to take on the facility's burden, just as harbor seals are beginning to have their pups.

The U.S. federal government shut down New England's largest seal rescue and rehabilitation program last month, saying the organization released 81 seals without testing for a pathogen that causes a contagious distemper-like illness.

"It's the worst time of the year for this to happen," said Dianna Fletcher, chairwoman of the board of the nonprofit facility.

Maine has the biggest seal population on the East Coast, and Lifeline handled the region from the midcoast to the New Hampshire line. Harbor seals come to Maine's coast to give birth and nurse their pups from the middle of May through early June.

Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Lifeline can seek reauthorization. But in the meantime, 21 seals that were being rehabilitated at the facility have been trucked to the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

It was unclear if or when Lifeline would reopen. Facility representatives were talking to agency officials, Fletcher said.

Lifeline, located just outside Portland, could hold 70 harbor seal pups, and its volunteers responded to hundreds of stranding reports each year. Mystic Aquarium rehabilitates about 20 harbor seals in a busy year, said Heather Medic, the aquarium's stranding coordinator.

"It's going to be a long season," Medic said.

Greg Jakush, who founded Lifeline, contends that a misunderstanding with the National Marine Fisheries Service led to the problems. But he has resigned his position to give the organization a fresh start, he said.

At Lifeline's peak in 2005, its medical staff and its 200 volunteers responded to 529 seals. Of those, 253 seals were collected and sent to Westbrook for rehabilitation. Last year, the organization rehabilitated about 200 seals.

According to the last estimate in 2001, the number of harbor seals in Maine was 99,340, said James Gilbert, a professor at the University of Maine. That compares to fewer than 10,000 before seals became federally protected in 1972.

The facility's shutdown could delay the response time in getting to stranded seals.

Jakush, who reported a 98 percent survival rate this year before the shutdown, said stranded pups can become dehydrated and weak if they are not brought in within 24 hours.

"They don't survive. We learned that the hard way," he said.

But the Maine Department of Marine Resources plans to take a wait-and-see approach over the first 24 hours or more if a seal appears to be healthy, said Linda Doughty, the agency's stranding coordinator.

With fewer resources, it is especially important to wait to see if the mother will come back for the pup, she said.

Part of the problem is that a mother seal is less likely to return once a pup has been exposed to humans, and humans often gravitate toward seals on a beach because of their cuteness, officials said.

This summer, seal organizations are redoubling their efforts to warn people to stay away from pups. And volunteers from Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts stand ready to come to Maine to help with stranded seals.