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Opinion | Peter Howell

Protecting gray seals — when does success become excess?

globe staff/photo illustration

The ever-expanding gray seal population in our coastal waters is protected in perpetuity by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The success of the act in restoring gray seal populations is widely acknowledged, but at what point should we address the problematic consequences of that success?

With numbers of white sharks — attracted by gray seals — being spotted off our beaches, answering that question is becoming increasingly urgent.

The act does not address the eventuality that a marine mammal species may recover to a sustainable population level, or even to a level that threatens the safety of our beaches, the recovery of our declining fisheries, the balance of our marine ecosystem, and the welfare of the coastal communities that depend on those beaches and waters for their economic well-being.


Lawmakers should address the following questions:

• Is perpetual protection of marine mammal species, regardless of their numbers and impact on the ecosystem, scientifically justified?

• When should we assess whether a species is recovered, and what is the methodology for making that assessment?

• When a species is determined to be recovered, what are the regulatory agencies’ responsibilities for stewarding that species in the larger ecosystem context?

The Marine Mammal Protection Act should be amended to provide for delisting of recovered species and appropriate stewardship of those species to ensure that their recovery is sustainable and consistent with the principles of ecosystem-based management.

It is often said that any effort to amend the act would |be a political nonstarter. The reasons most cited are that any amendment would weaken the act or be a pretext for a return to earlier practices, including a return to hunting or culling seals. But delisting would not sanction seal

The proposed amendments would strengthen the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because the act protects marine mammals in perpetuity, regardless of stock status, that protection deprives regulators of any incentive to properly assess stock status or declare a species recovered. The act should be clarified to address the question of what happens when a species recovers, including a post-delisting stewardship plan. The Endangered Species Act provides a precedent and a model for such a delisting process.


Absent a delisting provision, the law is inherently inconsistent and critically deficient in terms of ecosystem-based management. The Marine Mammal Protection Act’s “Findings and Declaration of Policy” concludes that, whenever consistent with the primary objective of maintaining the health and stability of the marine ecosystem, “it should be the goal to obtain an optimum sustainable population keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the habitat.” It is inconsistent to protect a species in perpetuity when the goal is to attain an optimum sustainable population.

Without a delisting provision, the act has no endgame. Marine mammals are permanently protected irrespective of their potential and real impact on coexisting and competing species, including humans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which shares responsibility for implementing the act, has no incentive to find that a species is recovered because the act does not address that eventuality.

Our elected officials should amend the law to provide for delisting recovered species. Congress should make explicit NOAA’s responsibility for developing a post-delisting stewardship plan that balances the legitimate interests of all affected species, including humans, within the overall objective of ensuring a balanced and healthy marine ecosystem.


Peter Howell is a founding director of the Nantucket-based Seal Action Committee and a director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.