Chatham Considers Policy On Handling Dead Marine Mammals

by Tim Wood
This whale that died after stranding in the Stage Harbor entrance channel in 2000 is lifted onto a truck at Old Mill Boatyard. FILE PHOTO This whale that died after stranding in the Stage Harbor entrance channel in 2000 is lifted onto a truck at Old Mill Boatyard. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – It isn’t uncommon for dead seals to wash up on beaches in town. Given the protected status of marine mammals, however, there are specific protocols that must be followed for disposing of the remains.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network is responsible for responding to stranded marine mammals, both alive and dead. In the latter case, agencies often conduct an investigation and perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death, especially with whales. There’s a hotline to report strandings or dead marine mammals, and locally the International Fund for Animal Welfare is the responding organization.

However, disposing of the remains of dead marine mammals often ends up being the responsibility of town agencies, which typically bury carcasses on a beach or, in the case of whales, tow them out to sea. In order to establish specific guidelines, town officials are considering a new policy laying out specific procedures to ensure the proper handling of dead marine mammals.

The policy, which has its first reading at the June 4 select board meeting, requires that sightings of dead seals, whales and other sea creatures (including sharks, even though they are not marine mammals) be reported to beach or town staff, who must then contact the department of public works. If the animal is on a town-owned beach, the DPW must immediately contact IFAW. Should the animal be on a private beach, the DPW informs the reporting party that the town will take no further action.

The DPW is responsible for burying dead marine mammals once the incident is cleared by IFAW.

Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the policy reflects existing practices. The DPW had to respond to about a half dozen dead seal calls this spring.

Criticisms of the policy included not helping out private property owners if a marine mammal is stranded on their beach. Chair Michael Schell asked for more clarity on handling calls for dead animals on private versus public beaches.

Cory Metters also wondered about the logistics of handling dead marine mammals when they are stranded on offshore sandbars. “Are we going to let the tide take care of it?” he asked.

The protocols need to be more specific regarding health and safety issues surrounding deceased marine mammals, Shareen Davis said. Seals carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans; many fishermen undergo training to learn how to safely handle seals caught in gear, she noted.

The policy also uses “seal” to refer to all marine mammals because that’s the most common species found deceased on local beaches, according to the draft. Resident Elaine Gibbs suggested that since whales, dolphins and other animals fall under the policy, the language should be changed to refer to “marine mammals” throughout the policy.

All of the issues raised will be addressed in a second reading of the policy, said Goldsmith.

Under federal law, people are required to keep at least 150 feet away from marine mammals, even if they are stranded or dead. According to IFAW, it’s important to note that seals haul out on the beach for many reasons and a lone seal on a beach may not be in distress. Anyone who encounters a stranded or dead marine mammal should call the organization’s stranding hotline at 508-743-9548. For more information about marine mammal strandings, visit