Magazine article Oceanus

The Return of the Seals

Magazine article Oceanus

The Return of the Seals

Article excerpt


There was once a bounty on gray seals in New England; hunters in Massachusetts and Maine got $5 if they turned in a nose or skin. From the 1890s until the 1960s, an estimated 135,000 seals were killed, and seals disappeared from Cape Cod.

Then the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 outlawed seal killing. Gradually the seal population recovered and is now thriving. A 1994 survey spotted 2,035 seals in Cape Cod waters; by 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service counted more than 15,700, with hundreds regularly seen congregating on beaches, or "hauling out," on the Cape shoreline.

The population of humans has also flourished. Never in their lifetimes had they encountered seals restored to pre-hunting levels. Perhaps inevitably, conflicts have ensued. In recent years, people have complained that the growing seal herds are attracting great white sharks to Cape Cod waters, eating fish that fishermen hoped to catch, and polluting beaches with seal feces. In 2011, five seals on Cape Cod were found shot in the head.

To help address these concerns, a group of scientists, fishers, and resource managers created the Northwest Atlantic Seal Consortium in 2012. Its goal is to get and share knowledge on the ecological role of seals in the northeastern United States: how they live, where they go, what they eat, their health and illnesses, and their interactions with the world-including humans-around them.

In an initial effort, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist Rebecca Cast investigated the claim that seal poop may be contaminating water off Cape Cod beaches. …

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