CHATHAM – Seals have been a common sight in Aunt Lydia's Cove for years, popping their heads above the water and swimming about as they wait for a snack to tumble over the side of a fishing boat.
But this summer it was different.
Beginning in July, gray seals, sometimes numbering in the low hundreds, began hauling out on sand flats on the inside of Tern Island, opposite the fish pier. And instead of a few seals seeking handouts, there were eight, 10, sometimes a dozen at a time jostling for scraps.
While this delighted visitors to the new fish pier observation deck, it worried town officials.
Two years ago, aggressive seals nipped two children who had their fingers in the water at the docks at the Ryder's Cove town landing. Feeding of seals was blamed, and officials are concerned that as seals at the fish pier grow in number and aggressiveness, the danger to both fishermen and visitors could also increase.
“It's a safety issue,” said fisherman and Aunt Lydia's Cove Chairman Doug Feeney. He said there's one particularly aggressive seal at the pier that has jumped up onto boats and stolen fish. The seal is so aggressive that fishermen are frightened of it, and there's an effort afoot to tranquilize and relocate the animal.
That will take a special permit under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, something Feeney said he's spoken with other fishermen about and would like to pursue. In the meantime, town officials are warning fishermen not to dump gurry and fish parts into the harbor – which is a violation of a town bylaw – and an education program aimed at tourists, sidelined by the pandemic, will return when it is safe.
Researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies had teamed up with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance pier host program to talk about the seals and make sure visitors know that feeding them is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which can result of fines of up to $11,000 and a year in prison. While signs posted at the fish pier and many town landings warn people not to feed seals, they often go unheeded.
“I yelled at a guy on the [fish pier] deck who was throwing french fries” at seals, said Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson. “It was just making it worse.”
Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the fish pier wharfinger has reached out to fishermen, requesting that they not let dead fish and gurry wash into the harbor. “We'd like people to just be smarter and not do that,” he said. “It attracts seals and all sort of other things we don't want to deal with.” Instead, fishermen could dump gurry offshore or use it as bait, he suggested.
But it's clear from observations at the pier that fishing boats often wash down the deck while at the dock, which draws seals to bask in the blood-tinged water flowing out the scupper.
“It's a problem we're going to keep facing,” Feeney said. Keeping the gurry out of the mouths of seals involves an extra step, “and fishermen don't like to take extra steps.”
It's also potentially a safety issue, said Andrea Bogomolni, a seal researcher and chair of the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium.
“You're dealing with a 600 pound animal,” she said. While being able to see marine wildlife close-up at the fish pier is a wonderful opportunity, people have to respect the fact that these are wild animals in their own element. “Education is critical,” she said.
There are least 27,000 gray seals in the western North Atlantic region of the U.S., according to a 2019 stock assessment by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency, probably more. Many congregate around Monomoy Island, with the local population hauling out on shores and sand bars from Chatham to Truro. The locations of those haul outs change periodically; the thing they have in common is that they're usually removed from people and other wildlife, areas where the seals are not likely to be disturbed, said Lisa Sette of the Center for Coastal Studies. Seals haul out of the water to rest, in between feedings, and to heal wounds.
“It's about having an area where they can rest with minimal disturbance,” she said. And Tern Island is a “great spot” for that. Although it is close to the mainland, it is only accessible by boat and visitors are infrequent. It is only one of many haul-out areas in Chatham Harbor and Pleasant Bay.
“Seals have been hauling out in Chatham for a long time,” Sette said, with aerial data showing seals hauled out in Pleasant Bay back in the 1990s. Their presence on Tern Island is not unexpected. “I don't know if it's necessarily tied to the fish pier.”
“There are thousands” of haul out areas along the coast, said Paula St. Pierre, who runs the Beachcomber Seal Watch tours. Although it's impossible to tell if they are the same animals, large numbers of seals used to haul out on a shoal across from the Chatham Bars Inn beach just south of the fish pier, and now appear to have moved to Tern Island.
St. Pierre said her boat captains tell her the seals in Aunt Lydia's Cove are getting bolder, and will go as far as to knock over a tote of fish sitting on a railing.
“We call them the freeloading seals that hang out there,” she said.
What prompted the seals to move onto Tern Island is uncertain. Chatham Harbor is incredibly dynamic, Sette noted, with shoals shifting on an almost continual basis. The popular haul out opposite Chatham Bars Inn may have changed, become less dry at low tide, she speculated. “They move in response to what's available,” she said.
There was some talk of seals moving farther up into Pleasant Bay due to shark activity, Smith said. While there have been no reports of sharks in Chatham Harbor or the bay this season, “I'm willing to bet they're there,” he said.
With hundreds of large mammals concentrated together, water quality in the cove is another concern. Feeney said regular testing of the waters has been done for the past few years by the state to ensure that the quality is up to standards for shellfishing, and so far there have been no problems. “If there was a major issue we would know,” he said. Regular testing at Andrew Harding's Lane, the nearest bathing beach, has shown no water quality issues, said Duncanson.
It's too late to stop many seals from acclimating to getting fed or picking up scraps at the pier. They aren't even afraid of boat props, Bogomolni said, which can be a danger for the seals. But there is a real fear that a seal acclimated to people could approach a person swimming or grab at a hand that is reaching over the water.
“There's a real opportunity here to have a greater conversation because of something that may potentially not go well,” emphasizing the need for “education about what the proper experiences are around large, wild animals,” she said.