NEWBURYPORT — A sure sign of late spring along Newburyport's rocky coastline is the sight of pudgy newborn harbor seals peeking out over their parents.
Typically, harbor seals tend to give birth in May and June along the northeastern coast.
But this year, harbor seal pups were reported in March in Gloucester, Plymouth and Wells, Maine, according to Mendy Garron, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the Northeast Region of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service.
That's about a month earlier than previous reports of early births in the region. If harbor pups can be born in those places early, they could also be seen arriving around the Newburyport area, Garron said.
"There's definitely potential," she said.
Newburyport Harbormaster Paul Hogg said there have been many seals sighted along the local rocky shores so far this spring. Some have even come up to his office on the Merrimack River during high tides.
"They were kind of early last year, too, but there are definitely a lot around," Hogg said.
This year's early discoveries prompted NOAA scientists to begin their annual head count sooner than usual.
NOAA officials are asking the public to give the seals a wide berth so as not to disrupt them during the birthing season.
"While it is not clear why the pupping season began so early this year, since harbor seals tend to use rocky islands, ledges or sandy beaches to give birth or just rest, chances of encountering a seal are greater, so it is really important that you don't approach, handle or feed them," Garron said. "Even though they look cute, these are wild animals, and getting too close puts the animal, humans and pets at risk."
A disturbed seal can bite and even transmit diseases like distemper virus or rabies to humans and pets. In other instances, a disturbed seal may abandon its pup to flee an approaching human or dog. If this happens and the pup is nursing, it will not survive. However, a female seal is more likely to return to reclaim her pup if the disturbance near the pup goes away, Garron said.
"We've seen people pick them up and bring them to a facility, and that's just not the best for the animal," Garron said.
Occasionally, boaters will report seeing seals come right up to their crafts. But Garron said that seals typically don't seek to engage boaters. What often happens is a seal is caught in the wake of a passing boat and flushed off the rocks.
"They're not trying to approach a boat," Garron said.
Hogg said he often receives calls from people reporting what appears to be a seal in danger and wondering if they should help it.
"The worst thing you can do is come up to them," Hogg said.
Not only could it prove fatal to interact with a young seal, it is also against the law. Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal and punishable to pick up, handle or interact with free-swimming, dead or beached marine protected species. This includes seals, whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and manatees. Penalties for harassing these animals can be up to a $50,000 fine and a year in jail.
NOAA recommends people stay at least 150 feet away from seal pups and keep dogs from touching them, as well. To report a stranded seal, call NOAA Fisheries Service's stranding hotline at 866-755-6622.