PORTLAND (AP) – Federal agents investigating a string of seal mutilations along the New England coast acknowledge the attention the incidents are getting may be out of proportion to the small number of animals affected.

But, they say, the extra publicity may lead to the successful prosecution of those responsible for mutilating seals found along the coastline from Massachusetts to Maine over the past eight months.

“I’m not encouraging my agents to investigate this because they’re cute and furry,” said Andy Cohen, regional law enforcement director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I’m having them investigate this because this is a violation of the law.”

NOAA, which is looking into possible violations of Marine Mammal Protection Act, is investigating the deaths of 10 seals. Violations can lead to civil penalties of up to $12,000, criminal fines of up to $20,000 and jail time.

Four of the 10 animals had been skinned, and two of those were males whose genitals had also been removed. One other male was missing its genitals, and four had been decapitated. Another seal was shot but survived.

Investigators cannot say that the cases are connected, despite speculation that seals are being killed by commercial fishermen or by traffickers selling body parts for use as an aphrodisiac.

“We’re looking at it up and down the coast from Maine to southern Massachusetts, with the possibility of these all being related,” Cohen said. “We have not established a pattern.”

People discover hundreds of sick and dying seals along New England beaches each year. Many are pups, weaned at two to three weeks and left to fend for themselves. Others are adults, sick and dehydrated, who haul themselves onto shore to rest.

Networks of volunteers respond to calls about stranded seals. They evaluate the animals and, if warranted, bring them to facilities where they can be nursed back to health, tagged and released back into the wild.

The numbers of seals found dead or stranded on the beach have grown as seal populations have rebounded since near extinction on some parts of the Maine coast in the early 1900s.

Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which made it illegal to kill seals, their populations rebounded across New England, particularly among harbor seals. There are now an estimated 100,000 harbor seals in New England.

All those extra seals inevitably mean more deaths. Boston’s New England Aquarium examines the bodies of about 150 seals found each year from north of Cape Cod to the Maine-New Hampshire border.

“Dead seals are a common event. That’s the one thing that people need to understand,” spokesman Tony LaCasse said.

Mutilated seals are something different altogether. Fisheries officials say that before the recent seal deaths, they had no record of skinned seals being found on New England beaches.

That novelty spurred news interest, and normal events have been misconstrued and have added to the publicity.

For example, a Marine Animal Lifeline volunteer examined a dead, decapitated seal on a beach in Wells last fall. The animal was an adult and the woman could not move it. So she marked its fur with an orange grease pencil and left it for the tide to take out.

The animal was later rediscovered and news accounts indicated that the markings had been carved into its hide. Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced a $2,500 reward.

“The public is really getting mixed signals right now,” said Greg Jakush, founder of Marine Animal Lifeline, which responds to reports of strandings in southern Maine. “We’ve gotten very panicked, upset people reporting seals to us.”

Cohen said public speculation on the sensational topic can help the agency because it keeps the animals in the news.

“Investigating these is not unlike investigating a homicide,” he said. “Somebody out there knows something.”

AP-ES-03-13-04 1202EST

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