What to Know
- After two New Jersey men and the mayor of Old Bridge, NJ, worked together to “rescue” a seal, NOAA voiced concern
- The seal was moved from its resting spot on the beach to the water via a makeshift wood sled
- The actions of the three men violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA said
Two men and a New Jersey mayor who thought they were doing a good deed for a seal were in fact committing a crime, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.
A video of the men coaxing a harp seal back to the ocean at New Jersey’s Raritan Bay on Feb. 15 was seen by NOAA representatives on the NBC New York Instagram account. Now the agency hopes the story might help educate others not to approach wildlife.
Christian Preston was walking his dog by the water at Raritan Bay when he spotted a harp seal he believed was “in distress”. Fisherman Jack Padinha was also concerned, and together they fashioned a makeshift stretcher for the seal out of an old piece of wood.
In the video, the men are seeing dragging the seal on wood to the ocean, while using what appears to be a mop to push the seal from behind. Old Bridge mayor Owen Henry is also seen in the video as the seal lumbers back into the ocean.
However, the actions of the three men violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which restricts humans from approaching seals at a distance less than 150 feet and interrupting their natural behaviors. Violators of the MMPA could face up to $11,000 in civil penalties and up to one year of prison. The incident was reported by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement, but no action to push charges has been made.
NOAA became aware of the incident after seeing NBC New York’s coverage on Instagram and suggested the post, in addition to the online article, be taken down due to the violation. They were not the only concerned ones in the comment section. “They should have left the seal alone and kept their distance,” one Instagram user commented. “This post will only encourage others to potentially cause harm to other seals.”
Ainsley Smith, the NOAA Fisheries Marine Animal Stranding Coordinator for the New England/Mid-Atlantic region, said that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened out of genuine concern for wildlife. However, she said it is important to remember that seals do spend long amounts of time not moving on beaches. “It is completely normal [for seals] to come out and choose to rest on a beach,” Smith said. “Like any animal, they need time to recover and restore their energy.”
If an animal is forced to go back into the water before it is ready, they may not have the proper energy to fish or plan as well as an animal who has had time to rest, according to Smith. Marine wildlife may also linger on beaches for several hours to heal an injury.
Seals are not a usual sight along the stretch of Raritan Bay that Old Bridge sits on. However, it is common to see harp seals in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions this time of year, which is when they migrate south from Canada and Greenland, according to Smith.
Although these men were well-intentioned, Smith said that they should have waited for responders to handle the situation. “The more we see cases like this pop up, the more it just reinforces that we need to continue reaching out to the public so everyone understands how to respect marine animals in the proper way.”
However, according to Henry, local police made a call to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center early in the morning but did not hear back until eight hours later. “I understand [NOAA’s] concerns,” Henry said. “But be here and do it.”
Upon learning that NOAA had reported an incident of marine wildlife harassment, Preston responded with regret for his actions.
Upon learning that NOAA had reported an incident of marine wildlife harassment, Preston said he regretted his actions. “I just thought I was trying to do the right thing,” Preston said. “I really felt when I came across the seal that it needed help.”
NOAA hopes this situation can serve as a learning opportunity for the future. Smith advises people to give seals plenty of space — 150 feet or more — and to never let your dog approach a wild seal or any wild marine animal. “Unfortunately it is not that uncommon, but we do try to increase our outreach so we can continue to educate the public about what that correct behavior is,” Smith said.
If you come across marine wildlife that you think may be in danger, please call the Marine Animal Reporting Hotline: (866) 755-6622. They will walk you through the steps to determine whether or not the animal needs attention.