Human-seal encounters in New York City have increased by 45 percent this year, according to the New York Marine Rescue Center. Melting ice up north is driving seals to the coasts of Queens and Staten Island, while a thirst for the outdoors during the pandemic continues to compel New Yorkers to the beach, said New York Marine Rescue Center Program Director Maxine Montello
“A lot of our seals were at normal beaches that would be less populated,” Montello said. “But because of COVID and everybody coming out here earlier in the year, we had patrons that maybe had never crossed with seals and were super interested in these animals.”
The 16 encounters so far reported to the New York Marine Rescue Center in 2020 are the highest total in a decade, she said. Seven of the cases involved people pulling seals into the water, removing them from the beach and offering them food and water, Montello said.
The center has also found that more seals are sticking around for the summer, which may result from trouble up north. According to the International Fund of Animal Welfare, melting ice in the Arctic has increasingly displaced Atlantic seal populations that rely on pack ice to birth and wean pups.
Milder winters caused by climate change can spur unusual seal migration patterns, bringing more herds to New York’s shores. Rescue groups have encountered harp seals, an Arctic species among the first to migrate to New York Harbor each year, hauling themselves further up on the beaches in search of ice.
Harp seals started showing up in the area around the mid-1980s, said Marine Mammal Stranding Center Director Bob Schoelkopf. Since then, the harp seal population has been on the rise in the Tristate Area. New Jersey had its first recorded harp seal birth several years ago.