Shark Attack Underscores Concerns About Burgeoning Seal Population

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Marine Mammals

Seals in Chatham Harbor. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Conflicts between people and seals are nothing new on the Lower Cape, where fishermen have long faulted them for depleting fish stocks and fouling the water. But with two recent cases of people being bitten by seals in Chatham – and naturally with last weekend’s fatal shark attack in Wellfleet – there are renewed calls to examine the issue.

Chatham resident Elaine Gibbs asked the board of selectmen this week to schedule a discussion about seals, which appear to be becoming more habituated to people in recent years. She said she has observed as many as five seals at a time feeding near moored boats near the Oyster Pond bathing beach, and said seal activity there is on the rise. The beach is used by the parks and recreation department for children's swimming lessons during the summer.

“All it will take is one shark to figure it out and make its way in,” Gibbs said. The topic is one Gibbs said she intended to bring before selectmen even before the fatal shark attack, but she acknowledged that seals and sharks appear to be coming closer to shore.

“The young man who died was only 30 feet offshore,” she said. “The next time, it could be a child at children’s beach.”

Aside from how they should respond to the presence of sharks (see related story), town officials are mulling ways to better educate the public about seals. In the wake of two cases of people being bitten by seals at Ryder’s Cove this summer, town officials installed signs warning people to keep their distance from seals, which are powerful, unpredictable and bring a bite that can cause serious injury and infection.

On Monday morning, Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson met with Dr. Andrea Bogomolni of the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium, and had a general discussion about educating people about seals. While they discussed concerns related to sharks, they focused mostly on how to remind the public about the need to give seals their distance.

“We were brainstorming how to get the word out,” Duncanson said. Seals have clearly learned to follow fishing boats to port, begging for hand-outs from fishermen, “which is not something we want to encourage,” he said.

Duncanson said the town and the Consortium are hoping to host a public forum or symposium on seals sometime this winter. The original plan was for the meeting to be focused on the fishing community, “because they need to be part of the solution here,” he said.

Gibbs said she believes seals are dangerous while feeding, and could mistake a child for fish. “And their fecal waste closer to shore will eventually result in the increase of coliform bacteria-closing beaches,” she said. Gibbs blamed the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act for creating an ecological imbalance, and said citizens should demand change. “Public safety is the first priority of government,” she said.

On its website, the Consortium argues that “healthy populations of all marine resources including fishes, seals, whales, and other species are important components of healthy marine ecosystems.” While gray seal numbers are up, it’s likely a return to their natural population numbers, they say.

“The growing gray seal population likely reflects recovery from reductions by past bounty programs and possible changes in the marine ecosystem. The rate of growth is similar to that of other seal populations,” the website reads. “Pre-exploitation population numbers are not known.”

When it comes to the complaints raised by commercial fishermen, the Consortium argues that the impacts of seals on commercially important fish species are no simple matter.

“Seals have diverse diets including but not limited to red/white hake, silver hake, sandlance, cod, flounders and herring. Given their diverse diet, it is unlikely that seals are controlling the population of any particular species of fish,” the researchers wrote. “However, additional research is needed to review a wide temporal and spatial scale.”

The Consortium also refutes claims that seals are prompting officials to close bathing beaches. In a 2013 web posting, researchers cited a study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, using public health data, that indicated that seals are not driving beach closures – mostly because they tend to haul out on remote beaches.

“Over time, water quality closures of beaches near seals did not increase and may, in fact, have decreased, while water quality closures of beaches far from seals remained steady or increased. Additional research is needed to confirm that beach closures are caused by effluent from human sources,” they wrote.

What is clear, Duncanson said, is the need for continued education about seals, “especially when we have such a huge visitor population.” Each year, thousands of people come to the shoreline to observe the seals and take photos, which is a positive thing, he said.

“But there’s also a downside, and that’s what we need to educate folks on,” Duncanson said.