HARPSWELL — For the past two years, volunteers along the Maine coast have scrambled to get injured and abandoned harbor seals to out-of-state rehabilitation centers hours away. In some cases, it was a race to get the stressed animals treatment before they died. Other times, volunteers had to end their suffering.

“We had to unfortunately euthanize a lot of animals because we didn’t have anywhere to bring them,” said Lynda Doughty, executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine.

This year, things are different. Marine Mammals of Maine recently received federal certification for its new short-term care center in Harpswell for animals rescued by its staff and network of 70 volunteers from Kittery to Rockland.

The center acts like a triage unit, holding animals for up to four days so their condition can stabilize before making the trip to the long-term rehabilitation centers that eventually release them back into the ocean.

Doughty’s group had been rushing animals to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, or the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, a grueling trip for wounded, sick and exhausted animals that became necessary when Maine’s only seal rehabilitation center, at the University of New England, shut down in 2014.

Doughty said the Harpswell center, the first of its kind on the East Coast, couldn’t open soon enough. Harbor seal pup season, the group’s busiest time, is about to start. “By Memorial Day weekend, we are getting a lot more reports of baby seals,” she said.

CRITICAL CARE … ‘RIGHT OFF THE BEACH’

Housed in a converted boat-building shop in South Harpswell, the center provides a crucial bridge between the time rescuers take an animal into care and when they transport it to long-term rehabilitation.

Very young seal pups are vulnerable to glucose crashes and their health can rapidly deteriorate, said Mendy Garron, a regional mammal stranding coordinator for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. That makes it vital to treat and stabilize the animals before trying to take them on a long trip.

“Fluids and supportive care right off the beach is really critical before transport,” Garron said.

Marine Mammals of Maine responds to roughly 300 calls a year, and provides care for animals in about one-third of the cases, Doughty said. Most of those calls come during the harbor seal pup season in late spring.

Young pups sometimes rest on beaches and coastal areas and can be separated from their mothers and abandoned, especially if nearby human activity scares a mother off.

“Southern Maine tends to be a highly trafficked area; well-intentioned people try to care for young pups on the beach, and it has unintentional bad effects,” Garron said.

Pups rely on their mothers for milk for up to a month after birth. If they are abandoned during that time, their chance of survival plummets.

That is where rescue organizations like Marine Mammals of Maine come in. When they get a call, volunteers make sure a seal is truly in need of help before stepping in to rescue it.

“We don’t intervene unless we know a separation has occurred,” Doughty said.

NEXT STEP: ‘TO PROVIDE LONG-TERM CARE’

The West Coast has a network of similar triage centers connected with the California-based Marine Mammal Center.

While the Harpswell center provides a critical resource for abandoned pups and other injured mammals, it doesn’t replace the full-time rehabilitation center at UNE. The goal of Marine Mammals of Maine is to use the triage location as a starting point to build a more comprehensive facility, Doughty said. In addition to the risk of moving the animals out-of-state, the Mystic and Buzzards Bay rehab centers sometimes reach capacity and can’t take seals from Maine, she said.

“A lot of people think we are a rehab center, unfortunately that is not the case,” Doughty said. “The next step is to provide long-term care, but that is going to take time and money.”

Other rescue organizations from Virginia to Maine are located closer to rehabilitation centers and don’t need the same treatment bridge that the Harpswell center provides, Garron said.

But harbor and gray seals are expanding south as the population rebounds from near-extinction in Maine after being protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. According to a 2012 survey from NOAA, there were an estimated 76,000 harbor seals between Maine and Massachusetts. Seals are now sighted with regularity as far south as Maryland and Virginia, Garron said.

“We think as these populations are rebounding, they are going back to historical areas where they used to be,” she said.

If the population keeps expanding, rescue groups in states on the southern East Coast that are less experienced with seals could use triage centers similar to the one in Harpswell before bringing them to rehab sites that have federal certification to treat them, Garron said.

The Harpswell center won’t be open to the public on a regular basis, but Marine Mammals of Maine is holding an open house at 3 Farr Lane this Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.