Stockton gets $700k grant to tag New Jersey Harbor Seals for the first time

Beginning in December, a new nearly $700,000 grant will give Stockton University faculty members, staff and students a unique opportunity to examine this animal population through a first-ever satellite tagging operation in New Jersey.

For years as many as 360 seals have gathered to rest and forage in Great Bay —the largest haul-out site in New Jersey. Two other known haul-out sites include Sandy Hook State Park (about 100 seals) and Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island (about 30 seals). The seals begin to gather in October and November and usually stay through March or April in large numbers,

“A lot of people aren’t aware that harbor seals occur in New Jersey,” said marine mammal biologist Jackie Toth Sullivan, who’s also an adjunct faculty member at Stockton University. “This is likely because seals are here in large numbers during the winter months There aren’t that many people on the beach or on the water in January, February or March.”

Stockton personnel will work alongside tagging experts from the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMSEAS) for this three-year, $682,890 grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Research and Monitoring Initiative (RMI). The RMI is a joint venture between the NJDEP and the state Bureau of Public Utilities to address the need for research and monitoring of the state’s marine resources throughout the phases of offshore wind development and operation.

“The purpose of the study is to, first, better understand the movement patterns of harbor seals both in New Jersey, as well as regionally,” Toth Sullivan said. “We would like to understand if these harbor seals are using specific areas offshore for certain behaviors.

For example, are windfarm lease areas being used as foraging grounds, and does this behavior change over time due to natural or anthropogenic impacts?”

Beginning in December, personnel from Stockton’s Marine Field Station, AMSEAS, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Marine Mammals of Maine and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center will attach satellite tags to select seals. These tags will allow the researchers to follow the seals as they spend the winter in the mid-Atlantic area and migrate to other areas along the East Coast.

“This research will not only give scientists much needed insight into the migration behaviors of this growing population of harbor seals but will also provide Stockton University students with the opportunity to perform sophisticated data analyses and to participate in a multi-institutional study with far-reaching implications,” Amanda Norvell, dean of Stockton’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics said.

Study goes beyond New Jersey

Various biological samples will be taken from harbor seals during the tagging process for health assessment purposes. That data will then be included with similar harbor seal studies along the mid-Atlantic and northeast coast by organizations such as the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in New York and Massachusetts, the NOAA northeast office, Marine Mammals of Maine, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island and Tufts Runstadler Lab.

“There are other organizations in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Virginia that are doing this same work in their respective region. Putting our New Jersey data into the larger data pool will give us a nice picture of coast-wide harbor seal movement and health patterns. It will fill a gap in this data set,” Toth Sullivan said.

While Stockton students won’t participate in the tagging effort, they will, starting in the spring of 2024, be able to assess the data collected. Collecting the data before construction of offshore wind begins along New Jersey’s coast will provide researchers with a baseline to assess how seal movements, behavior and health may affected by offshore development. Data, including harbor seal habitat use and dive patterns, along with analysis of food habits through biological samples, can help researchers better understand important behavioral and ecological patterns of these animals.

For Toth Sullivan, the grant has also provided her with an amazing opportunity as she will participate in the harbor seal satellite tagging process for the first time. She has previously contributed to bottlenose dolphin satellite tagging efforts, but never harbor seals.