Bay Area a 'hot spot' for marine mammal harassment, severe cases include dragging, experts say

Marine mammal experts reported a spike in the number of seal and sea lion harassment incidents along the Northern and Central California coasts, as it warned the animals were facing increased threat from people and dogs.

The Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, home to world’s largest marine mammal hospital, released new data on Monday that showed more than 25 percent of the animals it rescued in 2022 were found to be in distress following negative interactions with humans and dogs.

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The center said wildlife harassment was a contributing or direct factor in more than 150 cases of marine mammals that were rescued and admitted to its hospital last year. 

In some severe instances, workers responded to animals that were dragged. Other cases involved people trying to feed or pour water on seals and sea lions. 

Sionna, a female harbor seal pup,was rescued by trained responders from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., on April 26, 2022,on Bolinas Beach after being picked up and placed on a surfboard–separating the dependent animal from her mother. (Photo credit: Joanne Lasnie)

In one case, the center rescued a female harbor seal pup, named Sionna, from Bolinas Beach in Marin County, after someone had picked her up to place her on a surfboard, separating the dependent pup from her mother, the center said. 

Animal care workers treated Sionna and later released her back into the wild.  

Sionna, a female harbor seal pup, was treated by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. and released into the wild.  (Photo credit: Joanne Lasnie © The Marine Mammal Center)

Dogs accounted for more than a quarter of all incidents of harassment, officials said. 

"In the San Francisco Bay Area specifically, illegal pickups of harbor seal pups in Marin County and human and dog interactions with young seals and sea lions in San Francisco and San Mateo County were the standout harassment case examples," the center said in a press release.

The Center’s Associate Director of Conservation Education Adam Ratner noted that while the overall figures showed the Bay Area had fewer actual incidents compared to the Central Coast, "We unfortunately saw more severe cases of harassment locally." he said.

Trained experts from The Marine Mammal Center responded to harbor seal Snowcone, a nursing male pup, in April 2022 at Shell Beach in Sonoma County, after being illegally picked up and separated from its mother by two beach-goers. The animal died on i (The Marine Mammal Center)

The center detailed a case involving a stranded and injured pup it named Snowcone, which its trained experts responded to at Shell Beach in Sonoma County in April 2022. Officials said two beach-goers had illegally picked up the seal, young enough to still be nursing, and separated him from his mother. 

Rescue workers found the seal had suffered severe head trauma consistent with a dog attack. 

"This incident likely occurred after the animal was moved away from the established rookery, or breeding area, to a part of the beach with numerous off-leash dogs," officials explained.

The pup ended up dying during transport to the marine mammal hospital. 

Experts said the "tragic case" demonstrated how the impact of harassment can lead to detrimental outcomes for marine wildlife.

"While on the surface, taking a close-up selfie or having your dog off-leash near a marine mammal may seem cute and innocent, it can create real challenges, especially for young seals and sea lions," Ratner said, adding, "These behaviors can separate young pups from their mothers, increase stress and potentially increase the risk for disease transmission between people and animals." 

Experts called on the public not to crowd or get too close to marine mammals and urged people take steps to keep the animals safe.

The center said it planned to use the 2022 data it compiled for a new campaign to educate the public on the dangers of human-wildlife interaction, with a special target toward beach-goers, tourists and small businesses "in key interaction hot-spot areas." 

Its data showed a breakdown of cases according to counties in its 600-mile response zone. Santa Cruz County had the highest number of harassment incidents.  

Breakdown by county (all species): 

  • Santa Cruz – 35 cases (21% of all cases)
  • Monterey – 31 cases (19% of all cases)
  • San Luis Obispo – 30 cases (18% of all cases)
  • San Mateo – 21 cases (13% of all cases)
  • San Francisco – 13 cases (8% of all cases)
  • Marin – 12 cases (7% of all cases)
  • Sonoma – 8 cases (5% of all cases)
  • Solano – 1 case (1% of all cases)
  • Mendocino – 1 case (1% of all cases)

Infographic showcasing hotspot areas for marine mammal harassment by people and dogs along the California coast based on 2022 data from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. (The Marine Mammal Center)

 As part of its campaign, The Marine Mammal Center urged the public to follow these rules when encountering marine wildlife: 

  • Keep your distance: Give marine mammals space and enjoy them from a safe distance on beaches and in the water
  • Keeping dogs on a leash
  • Use your zoom: It’s OK to take photos and admire the animals, but if an animal reacts to your presence, then you’re too close. No SEAL-FIES please!
  • Call the experts, don't intervene

"The only way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of these animals is to first call the experts and keep a safe distance until trained responders arrive," officials stressed.

Members of the public who witness a marine mammal in distress were urged to call, The Marine Mammal Center’s hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325).