Seals' Comeback Spells Trouble For Mass. Coast

Aug 29, 2012
Originally published on August 29, 2012 8:25 pm

Before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed 40 years ago, early New Englanders had nearly hunted seals to death. They wanted them for their furs and to keep them from eating cod. Massachusetts even paid bounties on seals: $5 per nose.

The act has helped gray seals and harbor seals recolonize New England waters, but fishermen off the coast of Cape Cod say they have become a nuisance.

There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

A busy fishing harbor like the one in Chatham, Mass., is a swell place for the seals. Fisherman Sam Fuller says the lazy pinnipeds have learned to follow his boat like a chuck wagon, waiting for the crews to pull in nets full of fish.

"The seals just sit there and eat the fish out of the net as it's coming up into the boat," Fuller says.

Their sharp teeth also tear the nets, which can cost hundreds of dollars to replace.

The law that banned hunting the seals also bans any kind of harassing, so fishermen cannot shoo them away from their catch. Residents angry that their pricey beachfront property has become a favorite sunbathing spot for 300-pound sea mammals have their hands tied as well.

Ron Eppler, a dock worker, says fishermen should be able to do something about the problem. "If you own a ranch in Montana, and you've got a wolf problem or a coyote problem, you're allowed to protect your livestock," he says.

While the seals bug some locals, they are still a hit with tourists and children. "It's the busiest it's been," says Dylan Preston, an employee of Beachcomber Tours, who notes that seal watching boats have been selling out this summer. "I mean, sometimes we'll have seven to eight tours going out a day, which is pretty crazy. A good year, definitely."

Restoring Nature's Balance Has Consequences

But seals are also popular with bigger predators unconstrained by federal law. Last week, a family boating off Chatham saw a great white shark devouring a seal carcass. Last month, a swimmer was mauled by one.

Gregory Skomal, a state shark biologist, says the sharks are back because the prey is back.

"If you asked me in 2005, 'Why don't we know more about the great white shark?' I would have looked at you and said, 'Because I can't find it,' " Skomal says.

Stephanie Wood, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, says that the ecosystem is still finding a renewed balance. She says the seal population has tripled over the last dozen years, but will eventually level off.

"There's only so much food and space," Wood says. "But I don't think we have any specific idea of when seals in Massachusetts are going to reach carrying capacity."

An aerial survey last year counted 15,000 seals in Massachusetts waters. For John Our, a fishing boat captain in Chatham harbor, it is like competing with 15,000 fishermen who don't have limits. He is pessimistic about controlling the seals.

"It would take an act of Congress," Our says. "And there's not a congressman in his right mind that's going to be the first one out that says, 'Let's go harvest seals.' "

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Sharks have been attracted to the waters off Cape Cod by a booming population of gray and harbor seals. Seals are not only bait for sharks, they're annoyance for fishermen. Curt Nickisch of member station WBUR has the story.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: At the eastern edge of Cape Cod, at the Chatham harbor pier, fisherman unload their trawlers with the catch of the day. The spot's popular with tourists. But not just for ogling the grungy fishermen at work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Look at it over there, Sophia.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Seals. Seals. Yay, yay, seals.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aw, it's on its back.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Aww.

NICKISCH: Gray seals pop their heads out of the water. They dip and dive and swim around the boats, waiting, like dogs around the dinner table, for fish to fall off.

SAM FULLER: When I was a kid you'd be like, oh, you know, there's a seal. And it was cool to see one. Now they're everywhere.

NICKISCH: Fisherman Sam Fuller now sees them as a nuisance. He says they've learned to follow his boat like a chuck wagon, waiting for crewmembers to pull up a net.

FULLER: All the fish are in it. The seals just sit there and eat the fish out of the net as it's coming up onto the boat.

NICKISCH: The seals' sharp teeth also tear the nets. Fuller says those cost hundreds of dollars each to replace. But federal law bars him and other fisherman from shooing the gray seals away, must less shooting them. Same goes for residents angry that their pricey beachfront property is now a favorite sunbathing spot for 300 pound pinnipeds. Dockworker Ron Eppler thinks at least commercial fishermen should be able to do something.

RON EPPLER: You know, if you own a ranch in Montana, and you've got a wolf problem or a coyote problem, you're allowed to protect your livestock. But these guys aren't allowed to get near them because they're cute.

NICKISCH: Actually, they're protected because they were almost wiped out. Early New Englanders hunted seals for their furs, and to keep them from eating cod. Massachusetts paid bounties on seals, five bucks per nose. But 40 years ago, the federal government outlawed killing and harassing seals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act helped gray seals and harbor seals re-colonize New England waters. And they're not the only ocean animal to return.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, that's a big shark. Oh, my God. That's 20 - that's 15 feet.

NICKISCH: Last week a family boating off of Chatham saw a great white shark devouring a seal carcass. Last month, a swimmer was mauled by a great white.

GREG SKOMAL: If you asked me in 2005, you know, why don't we know more about the great white shark, I would have looked at you and said, because I can't find it.

NICKISCH: State shark biologist Greg Skomal says the predator is now back in Massachusetts waters because the prey is back. And some people don't mind at all.

DYLAN PRESTON: It's $29.00 for adults, $25.00 for kids, 3 to 15.

NICKISCH: Beachcomber Tours employee Dylan Preston says seal watching boats have been selling out this summer.

PRESTON: This is the busiest it's been. I mean sometimes we'll have seven to eight tours going out a day, which is pretty crazy. A good year, definitely.

NICKISCH: All those tourists are witnessing a marine ecosystem that's still finding a renewed balance. National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Stephanie Wood says the seal population has tripled over the last dozen years, but eventually will level off.

STEPHANIE WOOD: There's only so much food and space. I don't think we have any specific idea of when seals in Massachusetts are going to reach carrying capacity.

NICKISCH: Back at the Chatham pier, fishing boat captain John Our is pessimistic about controlling the seals

JOHN OUR: It would take an act of Congress. And there's not a Congressman in his right mind that's going to be the first one out that says, let's go harvest seals.

NICKISCH: An aerial survey last year counted 15,000 of them in Massachusetts waters. To Our, it's like he's competing with 15,000 fishermen that don't have limits. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.