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Researchers: Odd marine mammals, possibly driven by climate change, are at risk on NC’s coast

Ice seals are starting to show up off the North Carolina coast.
NOAA Fisheries
Ice seals are starting to show up off the North Carolina coast.

Over the past couple of years, University of North Carolina Wilmington researchers are seeing an influx of odd marine mammals on the North Carolina coast. Their hypothesis: it has something to do with climate change.

Dr. Tiffany Keenan is the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator.

“We're getting more seals from up north, which we never really used to see seals on our beach. So the waters are changing here for sure,” said Keenan.

As for the likely culprit for their movement down south, “Their ranges are expanding a little bit so whether it's that they're foraging for more food because their food is going out of that area," said Keenan. "We suspect that's what is happening, but I don't think there's been a study to date to confirm that's what's happening.”

She said it’s even more important for her team to try and quickly relocate ice seals, in particular, because they tend to mistake sand for ice — ice seals get their water intake from feeding or ‘scrapping’ on ice.

“So when they come here, they do that same behavior, but we have sand, so what happens as they start consuming sand, they get impactions in the gut,” said Keenan.

Keenan said with other seal species, they typically try not to intervene too much, because sometimes they come to the beach to molt which is “very energetically expensive.”

“So when they hang on the beach, people think it’s a stranding, but sometimes they’re totally fine and are just taking a break, so we’ll monitor for 24 hours,” said Keenan.

While seals are coming down south — more manatees are coming north.

“Now we're seeing them well into December. And what unfortunately happens is many times they will get cold shock, but if it's early in the season, we can get in touch with Florida Wildlife Services, and they will actually come to do a capture,” said Keenan.

Manatees are also staying later into the winter in North Carolina.
NOAA Fisheries
Manatees are also staying later into the winter in North Carolina.

Keenan said it’s important to let the stranding program know if there’s a manatee hanging out in say, a marina starting in October.

“But a lot of times we hear about them being here after the fact, we need to know so we can monitor and get them out of the area if they’re still here by November,” said Keenan.

If you see one of these species off the coast, either call the Marine Mammal Stranding Program at 910-962-7266 or 911.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR