Ocean City -- Everybody wants to help when a porpoise or a seal strands on the beach, but sometimes good intentions can have bad consequences, according to marine mammal experts.
At a recent meeting in Ocean City, stranding expert David Schofield gave information and safety tips for the handling of seals, turtles and porpoises that may come ashore in this resort.
"We're way the heck up in Baltimore, so we rely on you folks down here on the beach," Mr. Schofield told the group of 30, which included representatives from the Beach Patrol, Coast Guard and Ocean City Animal Control.
Mr. Schofield is the coordinator of the National Aquarium's Stranding Network, which helps marine animals beached in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The aquarium works with live stranded animals to try to nurse them back to health before returning them to the wild.
Although the first impulse when a beach-goer sees a stranded mammal is to put it back in the water, that's wrong, Mr. Schofield said. Animals often strand because they're sick or injured, and putting them back in the water just means they'll die somewhere else, he said.
"It's critical to get the animals from the point of stranding to a care facility as quickly as possible, if that's what we decide to do," Mr. Schofield said.
There's another reason not to intervene with a stranded mammal: safety.
"They can be very, very nasty -- they don't realize you're trying to help," Mr. Schofield told the group. Animals such as harbor seals can look nearly dead but still manage to bite someone who touches them, he said. There is also the risk of infection from a sick animal.
"Almost all animals which wash up on the shore have parasites," he said. Such parasites are normal in the wild and cause little harm to healthy animals, but can wreak great havoc in a sick animal, he said.
"Parasites are not usually the main cause of strandings," he said. "Usually there's something else." That can include being "turfed out" of the social group by other animals, injuries from boats or illness caused by swallowing plastic or other trash, he said.
Live mammals are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Mr. Schofield said, and it is illegal to interfere with them. Violators can face as much as $50,000 in fines and a year in prison, he said.
Any live marine animal that has been stranded should be reported to the Maryland Natural Resources Police, the state agency charged with law enforcement in Maryland's environment. The toll-free number is (800) 628-9944.
A dead stranded animal is also protected by the same act, and it is illegal to remove any part of them from the beach.
"Every little 'spoonful' as they say at DNR [Department of Natural Resources], is protected . . . even dead animals," Mr. Schofield said.
In the case of a dead animal, DNR and the stranding network will remove the animal and perform a necropsy.
"We work primarily with live animals," Mr. Schofield said. "But we can learn a great deal from the dead animals that wash up on the beach."
"No matter how dead it is, we want it," said Jackie Hoffman, a DNR officer who works out of Kent Island. The animal will be tested to determine what killed it, and studied to gain information that might help other animals in the future, she said.
"It's not real glamorous -- it's pretty disgusting," she said. "A lot of times we necropsy them on the beach."
Probably the most well-known stranding in recent memory is Inky, the pygmy sperm whale found off the New Jersey coast on Thanksgiving night last year. The whale was taken to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and nursed back to health for six months. After a full recovery, the whale was released back into the wild off the coast of Florida.
Earlier this year, a harbor porpoise was found stranded on the beach in Ocean City. The porpoise was flown to Baltimore, where an examination turned up internal injuries so severe that the animal was euthanized because recovery was impossible.
When a stranded animal is found, several agencies can get involved in the rescue and care: the DNR, the Coast Guard (which often volunteers its helicopters to fly the wounded animals to Baltimore) and Mr. Schofield's stranding network.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore is a member of the Northeast Region Marine Animal Stranding Network under an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The network is responsible for stranded animals in Virginia, Delaware and Maryland, and volunteers can be reached 24 hours a day.
So far, the network and the aquarium have been involved in the rescue of harbor seals, a bottlenose dolphin, a striped dolphin, a pilot whale, Inky the pygmy sperm whale and two loggerhead turtles.
The aquarium has a specially designed hospital pool in the Marine Mammal Pavilion. The isolated facility is an intensive-care unit for injured animals.
And Mr. Schofield said that not every stranding means a trip to the hospital for the animal, although many do.
"Seals spend 50 percent of life out of the water," he told the group. "A lot of the time, they're just resting. We'll get these calls for a stranded seal, and we'll find a big old fat seal just sunning himself and sleeping."
But any stranding should be reported, he emphasized. The Beach Patrol, the Coast Guard and other agencies were told to keep the public away from the animal, and how to care for it until help arrives.
And in strandings, as in so much else in the environment, human involvement is not always positive. Animals have been found with undigestible trash (plastic, mostly) in their stomachs, as well as with injuries caused by boats, shootings or fish hooks.
"The more we get involved in this type of work, the more we find human intervention in 50 percent of the cases," Mr. Schofield said.
REPORTING A STRANDING
If you see a stranded animal on the beach, do not attempt to move it or touch it, stranding experts say. Live animals can bite, and dead ones may carry diseases.
To report a stranded animal, call the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Stranding Hot Line at (800) 628-9944. Help is available 24 hours a day for stranded animals, and the DNR will notify the stranding network when a mammal is found.