DAO 81:81-92 (2008)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/dao01942

Contribution to the DAO Special 'Marine vertebrate zoonoses'

Health risks for marine mammal workers

Tania D. Hunt1, Michael H. Ziccardi1, Frances M. D. Gulland2, Pamela K. Yochem3, David W. Hird1,4, Teresa Rowles5, Jonna A. K. Mazet1,4,*

1Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, and 4Department of Medicine and Epidemiology, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, California 95616, USA
2The Marine Mammal Center, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Sausalito, California 94965, USA
3Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, 2595 Ingraham Street, San Diego, California 92109, USA
5National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources (F/PR2), East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Marine mammals can be infected with zoonotic pathogens and show clinical signs of disease, or be asymptomatic carriers of such disease agents. While isolated cases of human disease from contact with marine mammals have been reported, no evaluation of the risks associated with marine mammal work has been attempted. Therefore, we designed a survey to estimate the risk of work-related injuries and illnesses in marine mammal workers and volunteers. The 17-question survey asked respondents to describe their contact with marine mammals, injuries sustained, and/or illnesses acquired during their period of marine mammal exposure. Most respondents, 88% (423/483), were researchers and rehabilitators. Of all respondents, 50% (243/483) reported suffering an injury caused by a marine mammal, and 23% (110/483) reported having a skin rash or reaction. Marine mammal work-related illnesses commonly reported included: ‘seal finger’ (Mycoplasma spp. or Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae), conjunctivitis, viral dermatitis, bacterial dermatitis, and non-specific contact dermatitis. Although specific diagnoses could not be confirmed by a physician through this study, severe illnesses were reported and included tuberculosis, leptospirosis, brucellosis, and serious sequelae to seal finger. Risk factors associated with increased odds of injury and illness included prolonged and frequent exposure to marine mammals; direct contact with live marine mammals; and contact with tissue, blood, and excretions. Diagnosis of zoonotic disease was often aided by veterinarians; therefore, workers at risk should be encouraged to consult with a marine mammal veterinarian as well as a physician, especially if obtaining a definitive diagnosis for an illness becomes problematic.


KEY WORDS: Marine mammal · Disease · Zoonoses · Occupational hazards · Seal finger


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Cite this article as: Hunt TD, Ziccardi MH, Gulland FMD, Yochem PK, Hird DW, Rowles T, Mazet JAK (2008) Health risks for marine mammal workers. Dis Aquat Org 81:81-92. https://doi.org/10.3354/dao01942

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