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Maine seal deaths linked to the avian flu prompt a federal investigation

Avian Flu Seals
Robert F. Bukaty
A grey seal lounges on a small island in Casco Bay, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, off Portland, Maine. The federal government announced Wednesday, July 20, 2022 it is conducting a special investigation into seal deaths in Maine. About 150 of the animals have been stranded this summer, and avian flu appears to be the key reason.

The federal government has designated the deaths of nearly 160 seals since the start of June as an "unusual mortality event" along Maine's coast.

An investigation is now underway to determine the cause, the impact and the environmental factors surrounding it. The highly pathogenic avian influenza has been detected in a large number of the dead seals. Bryan Richards, of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, said avian flu usually goes into remission in the summer but this outbreak is different.

"The data we're observing in North America and in Europe indicate we need to keep surveillance up in the fall should the virus come back," Richards said.

The avian flu has affected more than 40 million domestic birds in the U.S., nearly 100 species of wild birds in 44 states, and now mammals, such as foxes and skunks. The federal government says harbor and gray seal populations are robust and there's little they can do to protect the animals since there's no vaccine or treatment for avian flu.

Anyone who sees a dead or sick seal is advised to report it at the stranding organization "Marine Mammals of Maine," by calling 1-800-532-9551. Never touch a seal and keep pets away from them. The risk of avian flu to humans is low but the virus has now been detected in eight other scavenger species, including foxes and skunks.

Carol Bousquet