DEC Urges New Yorkers to Avoid Close Encounters with Seals

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos today urged New Yorkers to stay at least 150 feet (50 yards) away from seals at all times. Seals and other marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a federal law that mandates people to stay an appropriate distance away from animals to ensure they are not disturbed and to keep the public safe. DEC also reminds New Yorkers to continue practicing social distancing to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.

“From ocean beaches to the Hudson River, New York’s marine environment provides vital habitat for local seal populations,” Commissioner Seggos said, “Observing these charismatic animals in the wild can be an exciting and unforgettable experience. When viewing the diverse marine life our state offers, we urge New Yorkers to remain at a safe, responsible, and legal distance from seals at all times. During these extraordinary times, residents are encouraged to practice safe and responsible outdoor recreation that incorporates social distancing while also demonstrating respect for local wildlife.”

New York Marine Rescue Center Program Director Maxine Montello said, ”Each spring, New York’s shores serve as important resting habitats for young seal pups. Many of these individuals have recently left their mothers and are on their own for the first time. Seals can remain out of water for several days, and most seals observed on our beaches are healthy and don’t need immediate assistance. We ask the public to follow social distancing guidance while also maintaining distance from seals. We work to conserve and preserve these animals and depend on community assistance to help protect these animals.” 

Atlantic Marine Conservation Society Chief Scientist Rob DiGiovanni said, “Social distancing benefits us all. While practicing social distancing on the beach or on a nature walk, please remember if you encounter a marine mammal, step back and give the animal its space, both for the animal’s safety and yours. If a seal can see you, you are too close. Refraining from interacting with wildlife can help save the lives of these animals and reduces harm. Together, we can continue to protect these amazing animals that utilize our waters year-round.”

Harbor, grey, and harp seals are commonly seen on many of New York’s saltwater beaches and estuaries this time of year, and it is normal to see seals in large groups or alone on the beach. Seal pups are also commonly seen alone on beaches when their mothers temporarily leave to hunt, or once they are fully weaned and foraging for the first time on their own. Interacting with a seal pup can result in the abandonment of the pup when the mother thinks it is unsafe to return. When seals are not hunting in the water, they spend the majority of their time resting on saltwater beaches, rocks, and sandbars, which is referred to as “hauling-out.” This behavior is essential for seals to rest, socialize, and regulate body temperature. If stressed and forced back into the water, seals can drown. New Yorkers can help keep seals safe by allowing them space and time they need on the beach.

While staying at least 150 feet away from seals, if the public notices that their presence is changing the seal’s behavior, DEC encourages the public to move further away. Signs of stress in seals include raising their flippers, showing their teeth, yawning, and eating sand and rocks. Seals are wild animals with sharp teeth and can be dangerous and potentially share diseases.

Reporting any sightings of seals to DEC’s Flipper Filesdigital survey helps DEC better understand seal distribution in New York. Observations of animals that appear to be injured or sick should be reported to the New York Stranding Hotline at 631-369-9829. The stranding hotline is monitored by the New York Marine Rescue Center (leaves DEC’s website) and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society who are properly trained to handle marine mammals and work collaboratively with NOAA and DEC to respond to strandings.

DEC and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) encourage New Yorkers to engage in responsible recreation during the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis. While enjoying the outdoors, please continue to follow the CDC/New York State Department of Health guidelines for preventing the spread of colds, flu, and COVID-19:

Try to keep at least six (6) feet of distance between you and others.
Avoid close contact, such as shaking hands, hugging, and kissing.
Wash hands often or use a hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
Avoid surfaces that are touched often, such as doorknobs, handrails, and playground equipment.