Cape Cod’s Seal Problem

The population of gray seals on the Cape has exploded in recent years. Is it time to cull the herd?

By | Boston Magazine |

gray seal population problem cape cod

Photo via Thinkstock

A few summers ago, after my family and I had moved to Cape Cod from the Washington, DC, area, we were introduced to an unexpected treat: seal watching. Plopped on our chairs at Nauset Beach, a short drive from our home, in Orleans, we watched groups of cute gray seals frolicking offshore. Other beachgoers joined us in this happy pastime. To behold a seal’s face when it bobs up out of the water—those large, imploring eyes; that splay of whiskers; the dark, glistening nose—is to have the feeling you’re looking at a lovable Labrador retriever, with flippers. Seal watching is so popular around here, in fact, that special tours are offered out of Chatham. “Seeing these adorable mammals in their natural habitat,” one tour operator promises, “will make your family vacation one to remember.”

Not everybody loves the local seals, though. “Wolves that went into the water” is what my neighbor Bill Amaru calls them. Amaru is a fisherman who operates his boat out of Chatham harbor and has been working the Cape waters for a living since the early 1970s, when he was just out of college. He began noticing seals in the late 1980s, and then watched as their numbers gradually increased over the years—until the mid-2000s, when the population exploded. These days, he says, he can see between 4,000 and 5,000 seals on a single fishing trip in the area around Monomoy Island, south of Chatham. The National Marine Fisheries Service very crudely estimates that nearly 16,000 seals now inhabit the Cape and Islands, and one local marine biologist, Betty Lentell, who works with the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, projects that the population will grow at a rate of about 20 percent annually for the foreseeable future.

That’s a lot of seals. And they all love to eat seafood, including the kinds of fish—striped bass, bluefish, and cod—sought out by area fishermen and local restaurants. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, gray seals consume between 4 and 6 percent of their weight per day. A mature male can weigh 800 pounds and up, which translates roughly into a daily diet of 32 to 48 pounds of seafood—an amount that, multiplied by thousands, has fishermen concerned, especially since the rise of the seal population in the area has coincided with a precipitous decline in fish stocks.

The burgeoning seal population isn’t the only thing decimating those stocks, of course. Global warming has led to higher temperatures and increased acidity in local waters, which has reduced the biomass, such as plankton, that sustains fish populations. Commercial fish stocks have suffered from the predations of dogfish, too, the numbers of which have been rising in recent years. But the most significant cause—decades in the making—is human overfishing. Strict quotas are now in place to help stocks rebound, but many populations are so depleted that fishermen can’t even reach the quotas. And not surprisingly, they’re unhappy about sharing the fish that are still out there with a rapidly growing population of seals.

Seals also attract sharks—including the mightiest of them all, the great white, for which a gray seal is a superb high-calorie meal. Greg Skomal, the principal investigator for the Massachusetts Shark Research Program, recently discussed the relationship between seal and shark numbers at a symposium in Chatham. Twenty-one great-white sightings were reported in 2012, up from only four in 2004, before which whole years would often pass without any sightings at all. And just last summer, off Ballston Beach, in Truro, a great white bit a swimmer on the leg.

“We have a direct relationship,” Skomal told an audience of marine biologists, fishermen, conservationists, and local residents. “If you open up the café, the predators will come.” Given how easy it is for a shark to mistake a person for a seal, Skomal has even started to worry about the wisdom of letting people swim in areas populated by seals. “I’m not sure I would allow my son to swim in certain parts of eastern Cape Cod,” he told me on the sidelines of the conference.

Add it all up, and you’ve got what more and more Cape residents are now delicately referring to as “the seal problem.” During the Chatham symposium, Greg Early, a marine biologist representing the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium, raised the question that’s increasingly been on everybody’s mind.

“How much of a good thing,” he asked, “is too much?”


On a chilly Sunday this past April, I took a trip to Muskeget Island, on Nantucket Sound, in order to have a look at a big seal herd myself. Muskeget is the single largest breeding ground for the gray seal in the region. I rode out in a small motorboat with Crocker Snow, who owns a cottage on the island. Snow, the director of the Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy, at Tufts’ Fletcher School, is something of an anti-seal activist. He calls Muskeget’s seals “golf-course geese,” because of how they poop everywhere, and he worries that they’re upsetting the ecological balance on the island by fouling several small freshwater ponds and trampling the habitat and nests of the beach vole, a small rodent unique to the island.

We set out from Nantucket, about 10 miles east of Muskeget, and on our approach found ourselves heading toward an enormous gathering of gray seals, perhaps as many as 4,000, on a strip of land adjacent to the island. It was an astonishing sight: a tightly packed assemblage of hulking animals that brought to my mind a squadron of infantry grunts, bellies to the ground, massing for an invasion. “Jesus, the smell,” Snow exclaimed as we got downwind of the seals and the heaps of dung they had deposited on the strip. Low, moaning sounds came from the animals, and dozens soon surrounded our boat, curious. Underwater, in the shallows, one sped by like a torpedo. Others humped their way off the shore and into the water.

This herd, and others like it in Cape waters, are the legacy of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which, among other things, made the systematic killing of seals a federal crime. Before the act was passed, seal hunters in the area had for decades been methodically wiping out the local population in order to preserve area fishing stocks. From 1888 to 1908, and again from 1919 to 1962, Massachusetts paid a bounty of between one and five dollars for each seal nose that hunters turned in. This is why Bill Amaru saw no seals when he began fishing in the area decades ago. He says one of his cousins brought noses (and sometimes a flipper, which was also accepted as proof) to the town hall in Orleans for payment. An estimated total of 15,690 bounties were paid during those years.

Now, of course, the seals are back—and to see so many of them gathered in one spot, as I did on my trip to Muskeget, is to confront the question of whether something needs to be done about their growing numbers. Impatient for action, a group that calls itself the Seal Abatement Coalition, made up primarily of sport fishermen from Nantucket, is pushing for “relief” from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Peter Howell, one of the group’s founders, told me that at a minimum relief should mean the legal right to shoo seals off beaches frequented by people. (Federal guidelines bar the public from getting within 150 feet of seals.) But some of the coalition’s members support a more-radical measure: a revision to the act that would allow the culling—that is, the killing—of seals.

The idea makes many people uneasy. Even Crocker Snow, who’s an avid hunter, wavered that day at Muskeget when I asked if he would kill seals if the act became legal. But my fisherman neighbor Bill Amaru has no problem with the thought. Indeed, seal hunting already takes place in Scandinavia, during seasonal shoots that are approved and regulated by the government, with quotas put in place to limit the total number of deaths. This sounds a lot like the officially sanctioned hunts in many parts of North America that are designed to cull overabundant populations of another cute mammal whose numbers have exploded problematically in recent years: deer.

As a country, though, we’re a long way off from allowing the killing of seals. The Seal Abatement Coalition is aware of how sensitive this subject is. “We’ll have the animal-welfare community down on our necks,” Pete Howell told me. To be fair, there are a number of arguments to be made against the killing of seals. Sharon Young, who lives on the Cape and is the marine-issues field director for the Humane Society, acknowledges that the rising number of gray seals is “probably contributing to a slower rate of recovery” of codfish stocks, but argues that the human mismanagement of those stocks is a much more important factor—and not something seals should suffer for. She also notes that killing seals in Cape waters won’t solve the problem, because many of the animals (with the exception of those at Muskeget) are actually arriving from Canada, and will continue to do so. Because seals are so beloved in this country, she says, it’s appropriate for us as a society to give them special legal protections that we might not give other animals.

All of this means that the seal population on the Cape will keep growing, at least in the short term. This is good news for seal watchers, tour-boat operators, and hungry sharks, and bad news for local fishermen and open-ocean swimmers. We’ve successfully brought the Cape’s seal population back from the brink, which is an achievement to be applauded. But now it’s time to launch a thoughtful debate about whether we’ve overcompensated.

As for me, I still watch the seals at Nauset and plenty of other spots where they are easily seen. But I watch them with a cooler and more-appraising eye. They seem less cute to me now, and more like a hazard. So, with public input, let’s have the authorities make a careful assessment of whether the population is truly overabundant—and, if indeed it is, as so many of us on the Cape believe, let’s begin culling the herd.


Paul Starobin is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.

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