Responding to animal strandings, outbreaks

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 11/1/23


The Port Townsend Marine Science Center and Central Valley Animal Rescue actively responded to the recently reported summer transmission of avian flu to harbor seals on Marrowstone …

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Responding to animal strandings, outbreaks



The Port Townsend Marine Science Center and Central Valley Animal Rescue actively responded to the recently reported summer transmission of avian flu to harbor seals on Marrowstone Island, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

WDFW Wildlife Veterinarian Katie Haman credited Betsy Carlson, citizen science coordinator for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, and Sara Penhallegon, director and licensed wildlife rehabilitator for Center Valley Animal Rescue, with overseeing their personnel’s responses to roughly a dozen or more harbor seals which died when an estimated 100-150 hauled out from the arrowstone area over the summer.

Carlson explained that the Port Townsend Marine Science Center serves as the local coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

“We get the calls, and send out staff or volunteers when marine mammals are found stranded or entangled in our area,” said Carlson, who added that their area covers the whole marine coastline from Brinnon to the east side of Dungeness Spit. “We had confirmed reports of no less than 12 harbor seals that were stranded and died on Marrowstone and Indian islands this year, when the average is usually only two or three in the same area.”

Since she couldn’t confirm that all the harbor seals were tested for avian flu, Carlson could not confirm that the increase was due to highly pathogenic avian influenza.

“The seals that did die from avian flu were likely due to them physically passing through the birds’ waste, but there are no signs of the virus being pathogenic to other animals,” Carlson said. ”And the five harbor seals whose deaths we can confirm were due to the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza represent a relatively low ratio, given that the virus killed an estimated 1,600-1,700 Caspian terns on Marrowstone and Rat islands.”

Between the lack of evidence of any mammal-to-mammal bird flu infections, as well as the subsequent migrations of both the Caspian Terns and the harbor seals out of the region, Carlson sees the matter as closed, although her personnel are already ready to respond to other such incidents, alongside Center Valley Animal Rescue and the Fort Flagler State Park rangers, whose alert precautions and “boots on the ground” she praised as invaluable.

“The five seals that tested positive were all from the Fort Flagler and Rat Island area,” Carlson said. “Some were tested from other parts of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, but I don’t know how many animals were tested in total.”

Penhallegon is called out for medical assessments and treatment for live stranded animals, typically by Carlson and the NOAA Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and this summer’s outbreak saw her respond to two live stranded seals, along with most of the dead ones at Fort Flagler and other areas.

“I quarantined the two live animals at Center Valley,” Penhallegon said. “One had to be put down due to injuries, and the other was cleared and able to transfer to Sealife Response, Rehab and Research in Seattle, after about a week in care.”

As for the dead animals, Penhallegon began by taking deep nasal swabs, which she sent in for testing, then bagged up the bodies to send them out for cremation, so they wouldn’t risk infecting other animals or people on the beach, until she ultimately conducted all the necropsies at Center Valley.

“I was nominated for all of this since I live in the area, and I’m fully trained in personal protective equipment,” Penhallegon said. “At Center Valley, we always have lots of PPE on hand, and are set up for necropsies, as well as to package up samples and send animals out to Pet Land for cremation. We’d hoped it would only be a few animals, but it ended up being a big job, getting those animals off the beach.”

Penhallegon echoed Carlson’s praise for the park rangers of Fort Flagler for their hard work, for which they donned multiple layers of masks, gloves, boot coverings and other PPE that could be quickly disposed of safely afterward.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, Penhallegon and other Center Valley Animal Rescue personnel are headed to the Hoh Reservation for a spaying and neutering program affecting up to 100 animals and they plan another at Neah Bay on Saturday, Nov. 18.

“With that schedule, I’m glad to see the seal necropsies have slowed down,” Penhallegon said.

As for Carlson, she wanted the community to know that the Port Townsend-area Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline number is 360-385-5582, ext. 103.

“And of course, nobody should touch dead or diseased animals themselves, or let their pets get near them, to prevent any exposure to anything that might be transmissible,” Carlson said.