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With Government Open, Scientist Scrambles To Get Back On Track

Gray seals are giving birth now to pups like this one on Muskeget and Monomoy Islands.
NOAA Fisheries/Kimberly Murray, NEFSC. Research permit #17670-04
Gray seals are giving birth now to pups like this one on Muskeget and Monomoy Islands.

Congress and the president reached a deal on Friday to re-open the government for three weeks while they continue negotiations on how best to secure the nation’s southern border.

With most federal scientists furloughed for over a month, huge amounts of research and data analysis ground to a halt, and not only in federal labs. Academic researchers who collaborate with government scientists or work on federal lands have also been impacted in ways that don’t necessarily disappear when the government reopens.

One example is the winter survey of grey seals along Massachusetts coastline. This is the seventh year that researchers have tagged pups and collected samples that provide crucial information about the health and growth of the grey seal population.

That is closely linked to the increase in white sharks along our coasts, an issue that came to a head last year after the first shark bite fatality in Massachusetts in more than eighty years.

But the seal survey work spent weeks on hold due to the shutdown, and researchers are now scrambling to make up for lost time.

“[The work] relies very heavily on NOAA, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife and Monomoy Refuge,” said Wendy Puryear, senior research associate at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School. “So not having those key players available has basically halted our ability to do any of the work that any of the collaborators are trying to do.”

Puryear studies infectious diseases in grey seals, including influenza. Wild seals are a reservoir for influenza, though it is not known if they can transmit the flu to people.

“There is that hypothetical concern," Puryear said. "That is one of the reasons that we do this research."

The research also informs scientists and policymakers about what kind of fish the seals eat and how the seals fuel the local great white shark population. 

The yearly survey must be done at the three Cape and Islands locations at the time when the seals are giving birth to pups. The pups are easier to study than the adults because they're smaller. Also, seals are a lot easier to study when they are on land for an extended amount of time, rather than in the water.

But the pupping season is short – just early January to mid-February.  With the government shutdown lasting from December 22 to January 25, Puryear is now scrambling to get back on track.

Reached on Friday afternoon, Puryear said she was already trying to get in touch with her NOAA collaborators. She said she is optimistic she will still be able to get some data this year.

But even if the weather and the seals cooperate, she says there’s no chance they’ll get as much data in the next two weeks as they would in a normal season. Still, it’s better than nothing.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.