updated 3/18/2004 9:57:26 AM ET 2004-03-18T14:57:26

Federal authorities are investigating 10 attacks on seals along the New England coast over the past eight months, including some animals that were mutilated or decapitated.

Investigators cannot say if the cases are connected. Some have speculated that the seals are being killed by commercial fishermen or traffickers selling their body parts as aphrodisiacs.

Four of the seals were skinned, including two males that had their genitals removed. One other male had its genitals removed, and four seals were decapitated. Another seal was shot but survived.

Maine to Mass.
“We’re looking at it up and down the coast from Maine to southern Massachusetts, with the possibility of these all being related,” said Andy Cohen, regional law enforcement director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We have not established a pattern.”

The agency is investigating for possible violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violations can lead to civil penalties of up to $12,000, and criminal fines of up to $20,000 and jail time.

NOAA spokesman Mark Oswell said the U.S. attorney’s office in New Hampshire would likely prosecute any criminal violations, while civil cases would be handled by the agency’s general counsel.

News coverage of the attacks locally has generated concern among residents and officials are urging them not to jump to conclusions.

“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.”

Distinguishing natural 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.

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, that haul themselves onto shore to rest.

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

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

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