Food Chain


The Marine Mammal Protection Act provides for authorized agencies to take stranded animals off the beach. Pinnipeds come on to the beach for a variety of reasons. They are equally at home on land and in the water. Seals are found out of water during the birth and nursing of the baby and during breeding. They are on the beach to sleep or rest, to escape predation, to warm up, to molt, and to escape bad weather. Sometimes, they just like to hang out and sit in the sun like humans. They also come on to the beach when they are sick and injured. Animals that are sick or weakened prefer the warm beach to a cold ocean that further saps their energy reserves. Animals that are on the beach with injuries or illnesses severe enough to keep them from returning to the ocean have stranded. An animal with no visible wounds that is well enough to be able to return to the sea is usually not a candidate for a rehabilitation center. In certain areas centers have been set up to treat stranded animals. The centers in California are operated under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and form what is known as the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network. There are similar networks in other coastal sections of the United States. NMFS regulations permit certain authorized persons to pick up the animals and rehabilitate them. Private citizens are prohibited by law with interfering with animals. The public is not allowed to approach a marine mammal close enough to change its behavior. Violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act are federal crimes and persons could receive fines up to $10,000.

If you think an animal needs help-----get help for them. Do not try to help them yourself. The animal needs to handled by trained volunteers. Contact the nearest lifeguard, animal control office, marine mammal rehabilitation center, or NMFS office in your area. You will be given specific instructions on how to obtain help for the animal. At no time should animals be fed or be touched. Pinnipeds should not be given food meant for humans or other animals. They are allergic to cow milk. It will kill them. Most well-meaning, but untrained, help usually results in a painful, irreversible death for these animals. Furthermore, they should not be moved, especially the baby harbor seals who are waiting for mother to return from feeding. Even if humans are standing close to the baby, the mother will not come back for it. She is afraid of humans and will eventually abandon her baby. Pinnipeds should not be put back in water or be kept wet. It is likely that ill animals are probably already suffering from hypothermia. Keep your dogs away from them. Remember, they are wild animals and humans and should be treated as such.


If people persist in getting close to an animal, they may end up being bitten or scratched. Any wound should be taken very seriously and be treated by a physician who is familiar with this type of injury. These are wild animals that are not inoculated against diseases, some of which may be passed to humans. Likewise, animals found dead on a beach should not ever be touched. Please contact the appropriate agency to remove the animal. A report on this animal should be filed with the nearest NMFS office.

NMFS allow s for a 24-48 hour watch on the animal. If it shows no visible symptoms of illness or no signs of serious wounds, it may just be on the beach for a while. During severe storm conditions arising from the El Niño weather patterns, many animals come to the beach. They are tired from battling strong waves or currents and from swimming in cold water. They need to just rest for some time before returning to the ocean. There may be nothing wrong with the animal. Beach-goers in populated areas are not accustomed to seeing pinnipeds on beaches and often assume because they are on land, they need help. Animals reported and under observation are usually posted with a sign. Please leave all posted animals and the signage alone. The lifeguard cannot stay with the animal constantly to protect it from the public or the public from the animal. The animal will be checked periodically during the watch period and its condition reassessed. If it is still on the beach after 48 hours, it will be eligible for transfer to a rehabilitation center.


Rescue centers commonly see pinnipeds that have stranded for the following reasons:

  • the very young. They have no clue about survival, cannot find food after weaning, and are found on beaches underweight, dehydrated, and often with secondary injuries. The vast majority of animals in centers are young-of-the-year.
  • the very old. They commonly have kidney failure, chronic infections, severe parasite infestations, or cancers.
  • injured animals. Common injuries involve naturally occurring injuries caused by shark bites or sting ray barbs, by competition and fighting with each other. They have lost eyes or have infections from cuts or scrapes. Other injuries include human-inflicted problems--- such as collision with boats, entanglement in fishing equipment, swallowing of fishing equipment, gunshot wounds, or stabbing or spearing. Some of the human wounds are purposeful. Others are inadvertent, caused by carelessly discarded items in the ocean. Still others are the product of competition between humans and animals for the ever dwindling resources in the sea.
  • ill animals. Animals are often admitted with diseases such as San Miguel Sea Lion Virus or Seal Pox. Pacific coast animals are also now exposed to morbillivirus (canine distemper). Some animals suffer from leptospirosis, lung worm or other parasitic afflictions. They can also have illness similar to those commonly found in humans: viral infections, pneumonia, or bad pregnancies.


For a more complete discussion of these topics refer to:

  • Marine Mammal Protection Act
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service, Administration of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Department of the Interior, 1995.
  • "Easy Target", The Sonoma County Independent, Dec 4-10, 1997
  • Geraci, Joseph and Lounsbury, Valerie, Marine Mammals Ashore, A Field Guide for Strandings, Texas A&M Sea Grant Publication, Galveston, Texas, 1993.


To test your understanding, complete the following:

Which of the following are violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in regard to wild animals

a. Feeding a marine mammal

b. Walking close to an animal, but not disturbing it

c. Walking close to an animal, causing it to flee back into the ocean

d. Taking photographs of your children on the back of an elephant seal on the beach

e. Giving a starving marine mammal milk or food

f. Buying fish at Fisherman's Wharf and throwing them to the seals below

g. Chasing mammals away from your fishing net with a loud noise

h. Snorkeling with dolphins in the ocean that approach you of their own will

i. Dragging a seal back in the ocean from the beach

j. Letting your dog chase a seal on the beach, scaring the seal

m. Touching a dolphin that swims by you while you are snorkeling in the ocean

Activities for students

  • Write to the congressional representatives to support renewal of the MMPA or other environmental legislation.
  • Participate in beach clean-ups, storm drain labeling campaigns,or other watershed projects
  • Visit a rehabilitation center for some kind of animal. Find out what kind of work is done there. Can you provide a service project that will benefit them?
  • Support establishment of national seashores, wetlands, and nature preserves to provide habitat for wild animals.
  • Each one, teach one. Pass on what you learn to others.