NEAH BAY – Makah tribal member Seraphina Peters peers through binoculars at a rock covered with seals and sea lions near Neah Bay. Her boat bobbing in the ocean waves, she notes the type and number of each and records them.
As Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for the tribe, Peters’ primary job duty is to monitor the tribe’s 24-hour marine mammal stranding hotline to dispatch rescuers to marine mammals stranded on nearby beaches. Peters also assists with marine mammal research objectives such as marine mammal surveys within the Makah treaty-reserved fishing areas.
“Having Seraphina available really helps improve our response time to marine mammals on the beach,” said Scordino. “Better response time improves protection of human and canine health,” he said.
Marine mammals such as seals can carry diseases fatal to humans and dogs visiting local beaches. “By getting to these sick marine mammals sooner we can minimize the potential of the spread of these diseases,” said Scordino.
Sea lions, for instance, may carry leptospirosis, a disease that affects the kidneys and is frequently fatal. If humans or dogs come into close contact with a sick sea lion or its feces, that infection may spread.
Scordino was forced once to euthanize a sea otter that was clearly unhealthy. The otter carried wounds indicating that he’d had a fight with a dog on the beach. The otter was later found to have canine distemper, a disease fatal to dogs.
Layers of fat that insulate marine mammals from the cold water of the ocean causes them to overheat when they become stranded on a beach. Once a marine mammal has died the insulation of the fat also traps heat within the body which causes the animals’ organs to decompose quickly. The decomposition makes determining the cause of death almost impossible, Scordino said.
“Getting to these animals in a timely manner allows us to perform necropsies to determine the cause of death and gives us clues to trends in marine mammal populations,” said Scordino.
Peters, a veteran of the tribe’s fisheries program, already has responded to one stranding. A several hundred-pound elephant seal was on the beach for molting. Elephant seals come ashore to shed their hair annually, as well as to breed and give birth. Peters kept other people away until the seal ambled back into the water. “It was exciting,” she said. “This is really interesting work.”
“Her job is part public relations, part public health and part marine mammal survey,” said Scordino. While other agencies will respond to marine mammal stranding calls in the Neah Bay area, Peters is less than an hour away. To report a marine mammal stranding in the area, call 360-640-0569.
A grant from the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program funds Peters’ position. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program provides grants or cooperative agreements for recovery and treatment of stranded marine mammals, and data collection from living or dead stranded marine mammals.
For more information, contact: Russ Svec, Makah Fisheries Program Manager – (360) 645-3160; Jonathan Scordino, Marine Mammal Biologist for the Makah Tribe, (360) 645-3176; Debbie Preston, Coastal Information Officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 374-5501, [email protected]