October 22, 2016 4:43 pm

Vancouver Aquarium releases rescued harbour seal pups back into wild

For the fourth year in a row, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre has released rehabilitated seal pups back into the wild. Linda Ayleswoth tells us why this “class” is particularly special.

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The Vancouver Aquarium is hoping to learn more about the survival skills of rehabilitated seal pups after releasing their latest group of rescues back into the wild Friday morning.

Four of the seal pups released were born prematurely and will be equipped with satellite transmitter tags. Aquarium researchers hope to use the data recovered to see how these seals survive compared to those more fully-developed, in order to learn how to increase their chances of survival in the wild.

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“The main goal of this is to figure out whether the animals have the same kind of survival rate that we would expect for animals that have never come through a rehabilitation facility,” said Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena.

The Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre took in about 150 seal pups this summer. Nearly all of those rescues were found separated from their mothers due to either human activity or other factors.

“Other reasons we get are predation events, mom gets sick, pup could be sick,” said Haulena. “We do have first-time moms who don’t know what to do with pups, that happens as well. We get fishing interaction injuries, all sorts of different types of trauma.”

RELATED: Vancouver Aquarium frees first-ever rehabilitated sea turtle in San Diego

Because of the high cost of the transmitters – valued at $2,000 to 3,000 each, plus an additional $2,000 to operate – the Aquarium is only able to tag a few seals per year, which forces the research team to be strategic with which seals they study. Tracking these premature pups may end up telling a different story than years past, yet Haulena is confident the results will be just as positive.

“We have a student now who has been looking at the last four years of data on approximately 15 seals that we’ve released with satellite transmitters, and the animals do really, really well,” he said. “In fact, our deployment with the satellite link transmitter has reached some record numbers. We’ve had over 300 days of deployment on some of the transmitters, which is completely unexpected.”

A tagged seal pup makes its way back into the ocean.

Courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium

The transmitters are glued to the heads of the seals, and are designed to fall off in the spring when the animal molts. Haulena says the goal is to have these tagged seals transmitting data right up until that molting, after which any further activity detected is a “bonus.”

“[If the seal survives] that means the animal has been out there, foraging, finding food on its own. It couldn’t have survived without doing that.”

For Haulena, the release of these pups is always a reason to celebrate all the hard work that went into the rehabilitation process.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I still get a thrill seeing these guys go back,” he said. “It just means that everybody who has done so much work and worked their hearts out for these guys has done a good job and has been successful.

“It feels awesome every time.”

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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