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?

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.