By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
If you’ve been on a Cape Cod beach this winter, you may have encountered an extraordinary animal comeback: Seals.
Once, the animals were considered such marine pests that states placed bounties on them for hunters. But that practice ended in the 1960s and populations got an extra boost in 1972, when the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed making it a criminal offense to injure or harass the animals.
Gray and harbor seals hauled out on the beach at Jeremy Point in Wellfleet, Mass. in December 2007. (Meghann Murray/NOAA Fisheries)
Now, people are seeing many more harbor and gray seals off New England (or hauled out on beaches) and it's becoming common to see harp or hooded seals, which are native to Canada. While federal biologists say it’s clear their numbers are ballooning - one estimate places the Gulf of Maine harbor seal population at more than 100,000 - researchers acknowledge they don’t have a solid estimate on how many animals there really are. But they do know there are a lot.
Clues are everywhere: More than 3,000 gray seals congregate on Muskeget Island, off the western tip of Nantucket, in the winter. A generation ago, only a few dozen of the species were seen in all of Nantucket Sound.
Seals are also showing up in more places. Gray seals now inhabit Wasque Shoal, off the eastern end of Martha’s Vineyard, and nearby newly created sandbars. Local harbormasters are increasingly innundated in the winter with calls from worried residents who don't realize that seals often haul out to rest on beaches.
"We do not know how many seals there are in New England because most seal surveys focus on a specific area, but we do know local populations – especially of gray seals - have rapidly increased during the last few decades,” said Gordon Waring who leads the seal program at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center laboratory in Woods Hole.
Many questions, however, still remain. Is the increasing population of larger and more aggressive gray seals having an impact on the harbor seal population? Are there any harbor seal pupping sites in southern New England? Why are some haul-out sites selected and others avoided?
There is also a larger social question that is being asked by some: Should some seals continue to be afforded great protection when their species are not in danger? I wrote about this last year as rescue groups struggle with limted funds over which marine mammals to save. And while many people love seeing the seals hauled out on the beach or bobbing in the water – some fishermen say the animals are eating too many fish.
What do you think?