In the wake of the Cape’s first shark fatality, there have been increasing concerns about the seal population and its impact on tourism and the economy of fisheries, which leaves many people wondering: does Cape Cod have a seal problem?
Out at the Chatham Harbor fish pier, tourists gather on an observation deck to watch gray seals wait for scraps from nearby fishing boats. The spot is well-known amongst pinniped lovers like Debbie Hinds-Gale, a visitor from Syracuse, New York,who returns to this place every year that her family visits the Cape. She pointed out at a seal not far from the shore.
"There’s another one with its fins up. I think it’s fun when they lay on their backs like that and put their fins up in the air. It’s like they’re doing tricks for you," she said, adding that she could watch them for hours. "To me it almost looks like a smaller manatee, but their faces, I think, look like they’re between a dog and a horse face."
But for others, the seals have become more than just adorable creatures to see on vacation. The Cape’s population of gray seals has grown dramatically in the past twenty years. For fisherman Mike Rathgeber, who runs fishing tours out of Provincetown, the seals have become a nuisance.
"They're stealing fish off hooks, they’re eating fish in the wild, they’re coralling huge schools of blue fish, striped bass, haddock, pollock, and mackerel. Our business of fishing commercially and recreationally, which is already very suppressed, now we have another layer on top of that," he said.
Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates there are 30 thousand to 50 thousand gray seals around the coast of southeastern Massachusetts, as compared to just 11 thousand in 2005. And Rathgeber thinks it’s time for towns to start thinking about ways to limit the population, whether it be through birth control or culling.
"When you think about Cape Cod, what are the two things that people relate to Cape Cod? Beaches and fishing," he said. "And if you take fishing away because the seals ate the vast majority of the fish, and you take the beaches away because of the sharks that are inadvertently terrorizing human beings, you’ve just taken away two things that are the Cape Cod brand."
The September 15th death of boogie-boarder Arthur Medici from a shark attack has put the question of the seal population front-and-center, as the increase in seals is connected to the increase in white sharks who hunt them. But Andrea Bogomolni, an investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the chair of the Northeast Atlantic Seal Consortium, said the population is still rebounding, after nearly being pushed to extinction in the 1960s.
"I think part of the issue is we, as humans, all of us, aren’t quite sure what to do with this wildlife in our backyard. How do we interact with them, what are we doing? It’s a really new phenomenon here," she said.
She added that Massachusetts is not the only place in the country to deal with a large seal population. Along the coast of California, Oregon and Washington, seals have had a presence for much longer.
"The pinnipeds on the west coast are more like 300 thousand, rather than 30 thousand. It’s a huge factor increase, in terms of numbers," she said.
And Sean Hayes, the protected species specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, said public education on the west coast has been key to reducing conflicts between humans and seals.
"A lot of it’s been public outreach," he said. "It has involved closing off areas and protecting areas, and just signage and public education saying, 'hey, these animals are here now.'"
In places in Canada, the government has instated gray seal harvests in certain areas. But in the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection act keeps states from managing their seal populations without federal approval first.
"They’re a federal resource, so they’re not just the resource of Cape Codders, or Massachusetts," Hayes said. "They’re the resource of people in Illinois, and Kansas, and Oklahoma."
And Bogomolni said that in some ways, culling the seals now might mean never fully understanding their role in the environment.
"We are in a healthier ecosystem than we were 30 years ago. We have an incredible success story, and we have to figure out how to live with it," she said.
She added that conversations between scientists and frustrated individuals are a first step towards better understanding how seals and humans can coexist.