Antibiotic resistance of bacteria in two marine mammal species, harbor seals and harbor porpoises, living in an urban marine ecosystem, the Salish Sea, Washington State, USA

Harbor seals and harbor porpoises in the Salish Sea are showing a relatively high presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A 2021 paper in the journal Oceans suggests that these findings may indicate a wider problem among other species in the region.

Harbor seal in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
Harbor seal in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.


The pervasive use of antibiotics in human medicine, veterinary medicine, and agriculture can result in a significant increase in the spread and environmental persistence of antibiotic resistance in marine ecosystems. This study describes the presence and distribution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Salish Sea harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and evaluates species, age class, and geographic differences in resistance patterns. Isolates from 95 dead-stranded animals (74 seals/21 porpoises) were tested for resistance to a suite of 15 antibiotics. Of the 95 sampled, 85 (89%) (67 seals/18 porpoises) successfully yielded 144 isolates, with 37% resistant to at least one antibiotic and 26% multi-drug resistant (24% and 39% of seal and porpoise isolates, respectively). Overall, and by study region, porpoises were significantly more likely to harbor resistant organisms compared to seals. Significant differences between age classes were noted for the antibiotics amoxicillin, cephalexin, and cefovecin. Overall isolate resistance was significantly greater in porpoises than seals for several individual antibiotics. Multiple antibiotic resistance (MAR) indices greater than 0.2 were observed in 55% of multi-drug resistant isolates, suggesting seal and porpoise exposure to anthropogenic pollution. The relatively high and disparate prevalence of antibiotic resistance in these common, but ecologically dissimilar, marine mammals reflects a potentially large environmental pool of antibiotic resistant organisms in the Salish Sea or inherently different resistance gene patterns between the two species.


Norman, S. A., Lambourn, D. M., Huggins, J. L., Gaydos, J. K., Dubpernell, S., Berta, S., Olson, J. K., et al. (2021). Antibiotic Resistance of Bacteria in Two Marine Mammal Species, Harbor Seals and Harbor Porpoises, Living in an Urban Marine Ecosystem, the Salish Sea, Washington State, USA. Oceans, 2(1), 86–104. MDPI AG. Retrieved from

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