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Social Distancing Affects Wildlife Too

April 01, 2020

As many venture outdoors, coastal wildlife, such as seals, are being impacted by the number of people visiting local beaches. In some cases, interactions between these animals and beachgoers is having devastating results.

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Sharing Space at a Distance

Social distancing has slowed the pace of society and encouraged more people to get outdoors. With springtime weather, there have been optimal opportunities throughout the Northeast for people to enjoy and explore local coastal habitats.

At the same time that increasing numbers of people are heading outdoors, many species of seals, dolphins, and whales are also using these areas. We need to share the shore and coastal habitat with these animals, while also respecting their need for social distance from us.

What We Are Seeing

Unfortunately, some people don't seem to know that these animals need space. In a few cases, well-meaning people may have inadvertently caused the death of these animals.

Tragic Results

On March 25, on Fire Island, New York, beachgoers dragged an adult harp seal that was resting on a beach back into the water. Captured on film, the seal appeared weak and in poor health. Being dragged into the water further compromised its chances of survival and likely contributed to additional suffering—and ultimately, its death. 

Again in New York, another healthy, resting adult harp seal was dragged into the water by beach goers using towing straps. The seal has not been seen again. 

While these individuals may have had good intentions, their actions worsened the situation resulting in a tragic ending. It is illegal to harass marine mammals—that includes feeding, petting, or other activities that are likely to cause distress or harm to the animals. Only experts who have legal permits should handle and attend to their health needs.


Earlier in March, another well-meaning person closely approached a resting harp seal on a New England beach. Her close approach, her barking dog, and her attempt to pour water on the animal significantly increased the seal’s stress. This caused it to eat rocks as a response. This previously healthy adult animal was seen again a few days later in a weakened and compromised state. 

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In another situation, beachgoers pushed a harbor porpoise back into the water after it had beached. Unlike seals, harbor porpoises only wash ashore when they are sick or injured. Had the beachgoers called trained responders to assess the porpoise, its chances of survival may have increased. Instead, the animal likely died as a result of being returned to sea in a weakened state. 


Impacts on Stranding Response

In a typical situation, if an animal is reported stranded or injured, trained personnel from authorized stranding response organizations assess its condition. They determine if medical intervention is available and required. However, many of our stranding partners are working under restricted operations. Responding to crowded beaches where stranded animals may occur puts everyone at elevated risk. 


What You Can Do To Avoid Wildlife Tragedies

As more people are taking to the outdoors and we approach harbor seal pupping season, we are asking the public to help us avoid further tragedy. Respect the social distance that is required by these sensitive animals. Help our stranding responders stay safe by not endangering, touching, or closely approaching  potentially healthy animals. 

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Seals need at least 150 feet of space between them and people or their pets. They do not need water dumped on them. They do not need to be fed. Covering a seal in blankets or beach towels can make them overheat. If dolphins, porpoises, or whales come up on the beach, they need to be assessed by stranding network partners to increase their chances of survival. 


If the animal appears injured or in distress, keep a safe distance and call your local stranding hotline or the NOAA hotline (866) 755-6622. This is the best action you can take to ensure the animal receives the help it needs from people who are trained to assess the situation in a safe manner.

Last updated by Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office on April 22, 2022