CHATHAM – Before her family boarded a charter boat for a day of fishing last Wednesday, 17-year-old Beth Fineberg rinsed her hands in the water off the float at the Ryder's Cove town landing. She'd seen seals swimming about 20 feet out and thought nothing of it. Then she felt a sharp pain in her hands.
“It came up from under me and bit a couple of fingers,” she said. She immediately pulled her hands away from the water, where a large gray seal was swimming. “I kind of freaked,” she said.
The Aug. 15 incident, and a similar one a day later, also at Ryder's Cove, in which a young boy was nipped on the palm, were the first documented cases in recent memory of seals biting people in town. Town officials and charter boat captains said seals at the town landing, a popular spot for sport fishing boats, have become more aggressive recently as a result of people feeding them and dumping bait and fish waste in the water.
“Do Not Feed The Seals” signs were posted at Ryder's Cove and other town landings last Friday. “Seals may bite if hands or other body parts are placed in the water,” the signs warn.
Tourist have long ogled at seals at the fish pier, where the creatures mill about in the water waiting for discarded fish parts or other snacks. But whereas the fish pier bulkhead and observation deck are elevated, at Ryder's Cove, the floats from which people board boats are right at water level. Seals now come right up to the floats in search of handouts, which experts say sets up a potentially dangerous situation.
“People have to understand they're wild animals,” said Director of Natural Resources Robert Duncanson. Feeding seals encourages them to come closer to the docks to seek handouts and changes their behavior, added Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon.
It's also illegal and punishable by a fine under the federal Marine Mammal Protect Act.
The bites suffered by Fineberg, a Concord resident, and the boy were not serious. But seals carry bacteria in their mouths that can lead to a serious infection known as seal finger, which causes painful joint swelling and inflammation if left untreated. Fineberg was treated at the Fontaine Medical Center in East Harwich, where she was given antibiotics. She said doctors at first were not sure how to respond.
“They're prepared for shark bites, but not seal bites,” she said. “They had to look at the literature to find out what to do.”
Monomoy Sportfishing Captain Darren Saletta, who was taking Fineberg's family out fishing that day, said seals are definitely getting more aggressive; they've been in local waters for decades but he's never seen them behaving so boldly. Seals follow boats into Ryder's Cove, bobbing alongside looking for handouts, and come right up to vessels docked at the float. Bert Daly, who runs the Beachcomber seal watch boat, said he saw a seal put one flipper on the trim tab of a boat, the other on the transom and try to climb aboard. He was washing down his boat at the time and sprayed the seal with water to force it back into the water.
“I was just blown away,” he said of the aggressive behavior.
The seals appear to go after anything in the water. Saletta said his son's hat blew off and landed in the cove, and before he could get a gaff to retrieve it, a seal had taken the hat. “I consider them the resident Ryder's Cove seals,” he said of the handful of seals that always seem to be swimming near the floats. He's worried about kids playing or crabbing in the water and tells his customers to stay away from the edge of the floats.
“I consider it a public safety issue,” said Saletta, adding that he believes the seals are nuisance animals and has notified the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Under the law, the feeding of marine mammals is considered a form of harassment and is punishable by a fine of $500.
Like any wild animal, “marine mammals can become aggressive if they're fed,” said NOAA spokesperson Jennifer Goble. Town Landing Officer David Likos said he's not only seen boaters dump leftover bait and the waste from cleaned fish into the waters of Ryder's Cove after a day of fishing, but recently saw someone place several mackerel on the float to try to lure seals onto it. He's began taking photos of people who dump fish waste into the water or feed seals. The dumping of fish waste or bait into coastal waters is a violation of the town's waterways bylaw and carries a $200 fine.
“They've been here for years,” Likos said of the seals. “But this is the first time they've been acting up.” There are a few, in particular, who are “very fearless” and aggressively pursue feeding opportunities, he said, including one large female that always seems to be in the vicinity.
Brian Sharp, program manager for the marine mammal rescue and research team at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth, has observed the seal behavior at Ryder's Cove. Interactions with seals can be dangerous, he said. On the West Coast, there have been incidents of sea lions dragging people off docks. People fail to realize that there are unintended consequences to feeding seals; if they become habituated to people, adverse interactions can ensue.
The group has worked to get fishermen to limit intentional discard at the fish pier to limit seal interaction, but the situation is different at Ryder's Cove, where the general public can get very close to the animals.
“We want to make sure that people are safe and avoid those interactions,” he said.
While the law can be enforced by NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement and the Massachusetts Environmental Police, education is the best way to change people's behavior, he said.
“We're hoping that through education and working with the town that this could be avoided completely,” he said. “Prevention is going to be the key to this.”
People are obviously attracted to seals; that's evident by the crowds who watch the creatures at the fish pier and is the basis of businesses like the Beachcomber. However, many fail to understand that these are large mammals – gray seals can grow eight to 10 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds – with sharp teeth and strong jaws, predators with no natural enemies in Cape waters other than sharks. Daly said when passengers are entering or exiting the seal watch boat, he warns then to stay away from the edges of the float and to not lean over to take photos of seals.
“I tell people it's not a circus act,” he said.
Keon stopped by the Ryder's Cove landing around 6 p.m. last Thursday and noticed a family with some children on the float. He was about to warn them about keeping their hands out of the water when a boy about 8 or 9 years old said “ow” and pulled his hand from the water. He had a small bite on his palm, although it was not deep or serious, Keon said. Before the two incidents last week, he was not aware of any instances of seals biting people in local waters.
Beth Fineberg, who was staying in Brewster with her family, said she didn't let getting bitten by a seal ruin her vacation. Right after she suffered the bite, the family had a “really great trip” with Saletta, the rising senior at Concord High School said. There was only one negative consequence.
“I can't swim (because of the bite), which is kind of a bummer,” she said.
A NOAA informational flier, “Don't Feed Wild Marine Mammals,” is posted on the town's website. To report incidents of feeding of seals, call NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement at 800-853-1964. To report an injured or entangled seal call the Atlantic Marine Animal Reporting hotline at 866-755-6622. To report a stranded marine mammal to IFAW call 508-743-9548.