Any plan to cull seals would likely face extreme challenges, including overcoming the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the likely opposition of both local and national environmental organizations.
There has been no authorized seal culling under the Act related to shark attacks since the law was passed in 1972, according to Mike Asaro, Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Branch Chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.
The law gives authority to manage pinnipeds (seals) to NOAA, which is under the department of commerce. It contains a provision for an administrative waiver, but there are a number of caveats, including requiring that a ruling by the secretary of the department be based on the “best scientific evidence available” and be done in consultation with the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency set up under the Act to further the conservation of marine mammals and their environment. Any taking must also be “in accord with sound principles of resource protection and conservation.”
Organizations like Mass Audubon would look closely at any science put forward to support culling, said Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Jack Clarke. “Science drives our policy, as it should,” he said. He noted that the seals that populate the Cape are part of the greater Northwest Atlantic population which numbers around 600,000, and others would quickly repopulate the area if a large number were removed.
“Unless we're talking about eliminating the species, which would have a drastic impact on the ecology of the area, taking out large numbers of individuals would not be effective in terms of eliminating great white sharks,” he said.
Both sharks and seals, as well as birds such as piping plovers, are “species that were decimated and are coming back,” he noted. A surfer, Clarke said have large numbers of seals and sharks in the water is a big change, but it's also a restoration of balance to the ecosystem, a balance that largely hasn't been seen during the years the Cape has become a major tourist attraction. Thus the conflicts that the region is now experiencing. How those conflicts will play out in managing both seals and white sharks, also a protected species, will clearly be the focus of much debate to come.