Avian flu spreads to seals in nearby county

Five harbor seals died just a strait away from San Juan County at Fort Flagler State Park on Marrowstone Island located southeast of Port Townsend. The four adults and one pup tested positive for the Avian flu H5N1, and following an outbreak around Marowstone and nearby Rat Island killing 1,700 birds. While the news is concerning, occurring so close to San Juan County, San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator Jessica Farrer urges caution and not panic.

“This is not a reason to panic. We are just trying to track it, which is what a stranding network does,” Farrer explained. There have been no positive HPAI results in seals outside of the Marrowstone Island area to date, according to Matthew Burks, Public Affairs Officer of the West Coast Region NOAA Fisheries.

Avian flu, or bird flu, is a respiratory disease caused by infection with a type of flu virus. It typically spreads among wild water birds like ducks and geese. It can also spread to domestic poultry, such as chickens, ducks, and geese. While the disease does not normally make humans sick, infections in humans have occurred. According to the CDC “illnesses in humans from bird flu virus infections have ranged in severity from no symptoms or mild illness (e.g., eye infection, upper respiratory symptoms) to severe disease (e.g., pneumonia) that resulted in death.” According to Washington State Department of Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Katie Haman, though human infections of HPAI are rare when they do occur, mortality can be high. The Spanish Flu pandemic, Haman points out in her report Avian Basics, was an Avian Flu. To read the full document, visit https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2023-08/20230810-wlc-haman-aiv-primer.pdf.

Other mammals, including cats and dogs, have also been infected. That the disease spreads to marine mammals is not shocking. Over the years outbreaks have been recorded in several seal and sea lion populations across the world.

According to Farrer, an infected seal will be very ill. While any pups brought to Wolfhollow will show signs of poor nutrition from being abandoned, a seal with Avian Flu will be extremely sick. The disease usually acts quickly, making it likely the animal will die before the Stranding Network is able to get to it.

According to Burks, based on previously published reports, Avian Flu affects all ages of pinnipeds from pups to yearlings, subadults and adults.

The virus has predominantly affected the respiratory and neurologic system and clinical signs include:

• Ocular and/or nasal discharge,

• Coughing, sneezing and/or respiratory disease/distress;

• Alter behavior – slow reaction to people, unresponsive to stimuli;

• Twitching, seizures, unresponsiveness; and

• Skin lesions and/or secondary infections.

Histological findings have shown cases of necrotizing bronchiolitis and interstitial pneumonia in the lungs.

The Stranding Network frequently works with Wolf Hollow, a local non-profit wildlife rehabilitation facility in Friday Harbor, bringing stranded and abandoned seal pups. While peak pupping season was over by August, a few born late needed attention, Farrer said. Wolf Hollow continued to accept those pups with special Avian Flu precautionary measures in place. Those measures will likely continue next season.

“One thing that we are learning about H5N1 is that its outbreaks tend to be intense but relatively localized, in places where marine birds and mammals congregate in close contact, such as seabird rookeries and seal or sea lion pupping areas.” Russel Barsh, Director of Kwiaht, said. Kwiaht is a nonprofit conservation biology laboratory in and for the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Kwiaht staff and volunteers have been tracking and researching local outbreaks by collecting deceased birds. According to Barsh symptoms develop and cause fatality so quickly that relatively few individuals escape to spread the virus elsewhere. “The San Juan Islands will probably remain on the periphery of the Fort Flagler outbreak, with isolated fatalities, this autumn. But an outbreak could occur here in the spring when seabirds, seals and sea lions mass together again for reproduction,” he cautioned. To him, the Rat Island-Fort Flagler outbreak is worrisome because of the close geographical location to the San Juan Islands. “Seabirds and marine mammals can easily cross the Strait. We hope that islanders will contact Kwiaht if they find any dead seabirds or waterfowl, especially Rhinoceros Auklets, which took the brunt of the Fort Flagler-area outbreak.”

Kwiaht staff and volunteers have collected one Rhinoceros Auklet on Lopez and it been shipped to Dr. Haman at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for testing. Kwiaht can sample, and dispose safely of potentially infected birds, according to Barsh, and are collaborating with WDFW and make it possible to sample infected animals quickly, while the virus, if present, can still be identified and sequenced genetically.

“Interestingly, we have not seen a die-off of Canada geese as occurred on Orcas Island in late summer 2022. Canada geese can carry H5N1 across continents, and large flocks resting and feeding in island bays or lakes are at very high risk of sharing infections,” Barsh said. “Thus far, the fall migration has been peaceful; however, these birds will return in the spring from southern latitudes where birds, marine mammals, and other small mammals have been more heavily impacted by H5N1 than here within the Salish Sea.”

There was one seal found on Lopez, and retrieved by the Stranding Network. According to Farrer, but they do not have the results back yet. In an abundance of caution, they are testing samples from deceased seals found in August, and prior to August as well.

“We have them ready to send, we have not gotten a green light from DFW yet, to send them,” Farrer clarified. She added that the test, from her understanding, isn’t a simple one, and with counties attempting to track the disease, DFW could understandably be backed up.

Islanders can help monitor and track avian flu by contacting the Stranding Network at the Whale Museum by calling 800-562-883. Barsh advises, “Take a photo, if you can, and cover a dead animal if possible to discourage scavengers, but do not handle it, and treat it as if it is infectious: wash your hands, and wash or dispose of anything that comes into contact with the body.” The disease may be passed on to cats and dogs as well, so please keep pets away from the animal as well.

“If you find a dead [marine mammal] report it to the Stranding Network,” Farrer said, reiterating not to let one’s dogs roll in it.

If sick seabirds, scavengers, or raptors are found, contact Wolf Hollow at 378-5000. If dead ones are found email info@kwiaht.org.