NANTUCKET — Big Kenny Tin Squid is not happy. Today, he has caught nothing. Nada. Oh, the surfcaster has gotten some bites, but only from the greenhead flies that are sucking his blood.
His real name is Ken Kassan, but nobody calls him that, because the legendary 6-foot-4-inch, 72-year-old fisherman always has a metal lure ready to cast into the sea. He started coming here in 1979 and has won scores of fishing trophies, both here and on Montauk, where he wanted to retire. But his wife preferred Nantucket, so he settled here in 1997.
“Fishing is my mistress,” he says.
But now he has regrets about coming to this island. The problem is not with his wife, but with the gray seals that have ruined fishing for him.
“It’s a terrible situation,” he says. “It’s impossible to fish in most places. The seals are absolutely a public nuisance. I put all my eggs in one basket, but now the basket has been crushed. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
In the late 1970s, only a few seals hung around Nantucket, and only in the winter. But in the last decade, their numbers have exploded. An aerial count by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of Southeastern Massachusetts haul-out sites and sandbars counted 15,756 in March 2011. That does not include seals in the water, according to NOAA, which says their numbers are still rising.
Muskeget Island, just west of Nantucket and Tuckernuck Island, now has the largest gray seal breeding colony in the United States.
Big Kenny Tin Squid yearns for the good ol’ days.
“We used to do very well up here with the bass and bluefish,” he says. “Then about 10 years ago they started the closures on the beaches. My haunt — the rip at Great Point — was taken away from me.’’
The Great Point rip, the holy land for surfcasters, is almost always closed to everyone except boaters. If it’s not because of the newly hatched piping plover chicks, it’s the seals, which require a 150-foot protection zone. Right now, with the seals having gone fishing in cooler waters, it’s the endangered roseate terns who are staging for their annual trip to the Caribbean.
“What about us?” says Big Kenny. “If a species is endangered, it’s one thing, but you have to make some sort of allowance for people.”
Big Kenny says he is not as angry as some other fishermen. In 2011, five seals were shot dead on Cape Cod. There are whispers that it could happen again.
“There are guys out there that are bloodthirsty,” he says. “They want to go out there with AK 47s and mow all the seals down.”
The old-timers remember the days when the state would pay $5 for each nose cut off a seal. Seals were virtually extinct in these waters. But Massachusetts banned the killing of seals in 1965, and in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act protected them nationally.
The seal comeback has been amazing. Environmentalists hail this as proof of a healthy ecosystem. Fishermen condemn this as the beginning of the end of recreational surfcasting.
On the watch
The seals, of course, bring the sharks.
Big Kenny once saw a trail of blood from a seal that had its flipper bitten off by a great white and beached itself. The shark took a good look at Big Kenny (who is big, and not just in stature).
“The s.o.b. came right by and tilted his head, looked me in the eye, and continued down the beach,” says Big Kenny. “He was looking for a seal.”
Big Kenny is treasurer of the Seal Abatement Coalition, which advocates for more research and a middle ground for seals and people. But he fears nothing will be done until there is a shark attack.
“Until somebody’s kid doesn’t come out of the water, they’re not going to do anything,’’ he says.
He also made a prediction.
“Forget about the recreational economy on Nantucket; you’ll have a switch to a seal-watching economy because that will be our savior.”
It has already started, according to the Trustees of Reservations, which sells permits to go out to Great Point to see the seals.
“I would say there’s some reduction in number of fishermen but an increase in people going out there this year, and that may very well be from people going out there to see the seals,” says Trustees superintendent Steve Nicolle. “They are an attraction to some people and a nuisance to others. ”
Captain Blair Perkins of Shearwater Excursions runs a seal-watch cruise. He says the seals were here first and now are just returning to their natural habitat.
“To be honest, I don’t know why people are having a problem,” he says. “I’ve fished my whole life for striped bass and bluefish and I can still catch them, no problem.
“The problem comes when people are feeding the seals, which is illegal. It became kind of a learned behavior, especially on the boats out at Great Point. It started out as kind of fun for their customers — hey, look, we can feed the seals and get them close to the boat.
“The seals are opportunists.”
‘Changing our lifestyle’
Captain Tom Mleczko of Captain Tom’s Charters says everyone else must adapt.
“One of the great things about Nantucket is that anybody can grab a spinning rod and cast a lure and have a chance to catch a bluefish, which is very exciting,” he says. “Now there’s fewer and fewer places you can do that without encountering seals. It’s changing our lifestyle.”
Mleczko, whose daughter A.J. won an Olympic gold medal in women’s ice hockey in 1998, says even his charter business is affected.
“Fishing is still good, it’s just more travel time and less fishing time,” he says. “They’re following us out, following the boats, they’re very smart animals.’’
One of his other captains lost most of his catch to a wily 800-pound seal who jostled a boat along the Great Point rip, hid underneath it, and then picked off bluefish and striped bass as fast as they could reel them in.
They moved farther away, but the results were the same.
“That seal was just targeting all our boats,” says captain Carl Danielson.
A seal actually cost Nantucket bragging rights in the annual Island Cup catch-and-release surfcasting contest against Martha’s Vineyard.
Campbell Sutton of Nantucket landed a massive striped bass on her first cast on Nantucket’s Madequecham Beach in June. It was the biggest striper of the day.
“I got it up into the white water, and you could see the seal coming in the waves, so I pulled it up on the beach maybe 3 feet out of the water,” says the former Nantucket schoolteacher. “As I was running down to get my fish, the seal beat me to it.
“That seal came up and wrapped itself around that fish and just sort of took the next wave out. I was just shaking for a while. That was a drag. Then the seal took a half an hour laying on its belly looking at me and showing me the big fish.”
This July, a Florida man caught a sand shark on Nantucket and wrestled it to shore. Environmentalists say this type of shark is not a threat. But it’s enough to stop Ken Murray of Nantucket from surfcasting and swimming in the ocean.
“It’s just a matter of time before a shark mistakes a kayaker or a windsurfer out there for a seal,” he says. “Somebody’s going to get bit. I’m a coward. I like all my limbs.”
Cam Gammill, owner of Bill Fisher Tackle and charter captain of Nantucket Outfitters, says he has seen seals in Muskeget Channel sit 10 feet apart “like fence posts, picking off bait.”
At Great Point, he wrote in an e-mail, “You’ll lose multiple fish a day to seals. As a result, we’ve seen anglers less apt to embrace this incredible fishery and as a result this has had an enormous economic impact on the shop.”
Search for a solution
A vacationing David Nemeth of Melrose is surfcasting but not catching anything on a Saturday afternoon in the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge.
“There are deer populations and controlled hunts — maybe we should look at something like that,” he says. “They’ve got to find a way to figure it out. We’ve got to live in harmony. Everyone has got to eat and live.”
But environmentalists believe that a culling of the seal population would be a big mistake.
“Repealing the Marine Mammal Protection Act is a nuclear option for a problem that does not require a nuclear option,’’ says Sarah Oktay, director of the UMass-Boston Nantucket Field Station. “Let’s say we get rid of the seals and then the fish are still further out. What then?
“I think they are the scapegoats. People see the seals, but there could be a variety of other reasons, like warmer water or fewer prey fish.’’
Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, cautions against rash behavior.
“Even if the American public were to say it’s OK to kill 10,000 of them — which is what has been proposed in the public forum — you still have an enormous population in Canada that comes and goes,” she says. “It wouldn’t make a difference.”
Big Kenny says he is nonviolent.
“I’m not bloodthirsty, I don’t want to see people killing them and cutting off their noses for bounty,” he says. “I just want to be able to harass them and kick them off the beaches.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service allows recreational fishermen to deter seals that are damaging gear or catch, by means including noisemakers.
“You or I can’t just walk along and squirt a Super Soaker at a seal,” says Young. “But a fisherman could. As long as they were actively fishing, they have a right to deter seals.”
But Big Kenny says it’s a fine line.
“Nobody is going to risk going to jail,” he says. “If the seal comes after your catch, you can throw a rock, but if he’s just swimming, he has the right of way. Just like the pedestrian has the right of way in a crosswalk. You can’t harass them in any way.”
The bottom line is that it is Big Kenny who feels harassed.
“I think the surf fisherman that uses the four-wheel-drive is the endangered species,” he says. “And you can quote me.”
The good news is that all groups are talking regularly and looking for solutions. In San Simeon, Calif., arrangements were negotiated so that seals and people both had separate access to the waters.
“We have a stewardship responsibility,” says Young. “It’s our obligation to be benevolent to those over which we have power.
“You have to be creative. We’ve got that big brain for a reason. We need to use it.”