Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Seals are Back! Who Loves them, Who Doesn't?

I've been spending time on Cape Cod in the summer since the mid-1980s and my husband started going there as a kid in the mid 50's.  Neither of us remembers seeing gray seals in the water or on the beaches until about six or seven years ago.  (Well, my husband claims he saw them on rare occasions, sailing in Provincetown Harbor when he was very young.)

It's quite a different story now.  We see them every summer, almost every day we are there.

At first, it was just a head popping up in the surf off of  the Atlantic-side beaches of  Wellfleet and Truro. Was that really a seal?  It was thrilling to see them. Not surprisingly, Cape fisherman were aware of the seals' return for far longer.

Then we started reading in the local (and national) news about the large colonies that would congregate on sandbars at low-tide , places like the Chatham sandbar, and at Truro's Head of the Meadow beach.  Here they are last September on Wellfleet's Coast Guard Beach -- hundreds of them lounging on the sand and swimming in the shallow water between the bar and the beach.

They have drawn fans who, like us, were cheered to see that the species has rebounded since the killing of seals was outlawed in the early 1970's.

This was a blustery day and no longer peak tourist season, so a relatively small crowd is trekking down the beach to get a closer look.

Along with the seals have come greater numbers of  Great White sharks, which prey on the seal's fatty meat.  Beaches have been closed due to shark sightings.  Swimmers are advised to stay out of the water if seals are present (common sense, no?)  as well as in the late afternoon when sharks tend to feed.  But some Cape Codders have tried to embrace the sharks; Chatham launched a campaign too attract visitors with shark tourism.   The resurgence of seals and sharks has also provided new opportunities for research by scientists at places such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Services Center (NEFSC)

Cape Cod's fishermen are not so excited to see the seals returning by the thousands, as this news report explains.  They view the seals as competitors, consuming ever greater numbers of the fish they depend on for their livelihood.

The situation is a bit reminiscent of the return of wolves to western states, where ranchers complain that their livestock are being preyed upon by wolves.  Since wolves have been removed from the endangered list, ranchers, scientists and animal rights activists often struggle to find ways to satisfy each others interests.  Some advocate for culling the herds, others fight for better livestock management practices.

For now, the seals of Cape Cod remain a protected species.  But, as the populations increase so will the pressure to deal with similar competing interests.