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We saved the Cape and Islands’ seals from extinction. Now what?

When efforts at wildlife protection threaten to lapse into overpopulation.

A small portion of a group of up to 3,000 gray seals seen off Nantucket. Shearwater Excursions

They’re cute. They’re cuddly (or at least they look it). And they were here long before us. But in recent years calls for culling the growing population of seals on the Cape and Islands have become harder to ignore.

Commercial fishermen say the seals are contributing to their industry’s already precipitous decline, going after what remains of depleted cod and flounder stocks. Recreational anglers point to the tourism dollars lost when an area like Great Point in Nantucket, a mecca for surfcasters far and wide, is taken over by the hulking animals. Beachgoers worry about scat polluting the sand and the seals themselves attracting great whites near shore, as has happened in Chatham and elsewhere on the Cape in recent summers.


Scientists, animal-rights advocates, and conservationists counter each of these claims and more. Global warming is a more likely cause of lowered fish populations, they maintain, and though seals do nick the catch and damage nets, the nets also entangle and kill hundreds of animals a year. The tourism slack from AWOL sport fishermen will be picked up by the seal-watching industry, already doing well in Chatham and Orleans. Research has shown, believe it or not, that seal-frequented beaches are actually cleaner than average. And the risk from great whites remains small and can be mitigated by measures such as shark nets if needed.

Both harbor and gray seals — the two species in New England — had a bounty on their heads from 1888 to 1962 and were hunted to the brink of extinction in the United States. Once the bounty ended, seals from Canada began slowly repopulating US waters. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which prohibits harming or harassing the animals in any way, was signed into law and the populations grew even more.

But there are those who say we’ve gone too far. “When does success begin to lap over into excess?” asks Pete Howell, a founding director of the Seal Abatement Coalition in Nantucket. Howell, a retired banker who says he’s “delighted to see the seals back,” advocates a “shared use” model that would allow people to shoo the animals away from the shore, but admits there are others who “would just as soon take a shotgun.”


David Gouveia, the marine mammal and sea turtle conservation coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, admits that the 41-year-old laws didn’t anticipate the current problems. “Does something need to be different?” he asks. “That’s the million-dollar question. It’s a natural population in its natural habitat doing what it’s supposed to do.” The question, he says, is “how much [of a population] is enough, and if there is more than enough, how do you deal with it?”

The seal people are not the only ones wondering what to do now that the MMPA, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and other protections are showing real gains. Deer, geese, wild turkeys, beavers, coyotes, wolves, and bears — to name just a few — are increasingly coming in contact with people who consider them pests at best and, at worst, disease carriers and threats to our safety, our way of life, or our economy.

The real problem is that we’ve entered the Anthropocene era, when virtually no ecosystem is untouched by human activity. Wholesale slaughter among earlier generations, the often intentional introduction of what came to be invasive species, and widespread destruction of native and indigenous habitats — to say nothing of climate change and rising sea levels — have created an ecosystem out of whack. We’ve tried to rectify our mistakes and have been successful in bringing back some species. But there’s no longer as much wide-open country for them to occupy, and allowing them to reach what biologists call “carrying capacity,” or the maximum population the environment can sustain, will inevitably have consequences.


But shooting them is not the answer. Once we make the commitment to regrow a species, we need to remain good stewards to the individuals of that species or we become like dog owners who dump gray-muzzled pets because they’re no longer cute enough. There have to be other answers.

In nature, everything relies on other things, and it’s not always possible to predict where the dominoes will fall. A rare sedge, for example, might grow only if night herons are present. Why? Night herons eat land crabs, and land crabs eat sedge. But the connections aren’t always apparent, and the only way to find them is through research.

Right now there is little agreement among scientists about anything regarding the seals, including their diets, their predator-prey relationships, and their effects on the environment. And with the current climate of politicizing and mistrusting science, funding constraints are greater than ever. But without detailed study of biology and animal behaviors, living among other species will only get more difficult. We need to come to terms with the fact that we are only a part — not the only part — of the picture. If we don’t, we may be the next species that needs saving.




The estimated gray seal population in Southeastern Massachusetts, based on a one-day count from 2011

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent Globe Magazine contributor and the author of Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back From Extinction. Send comments to