Gray seals vs. fishermen, sharks, environmentalists and the Easter Bunny
An article in March 24, 2013 issue of the Boston Globe entitled "Debate grows over what to do about seal resurgence" rekindled in time for the spring recreational saltwater fishing season the debate between surf fishermen and commercial fishermen, and protectors of marine mammals. The article, written by Globe Reporter Billy Baker, reminds us that the seals are here to stay, that in 1991 only six pups were born on Muskeget Island, but that 2,096 were born in 2008. The fact is that the latter number was probably a lot higher in the 2013 pupping season, January in February on Muskeget, which means Great Point is likely to remain a major haulout spot for gray seals, a potential buffet for great white sharks already dining on gray seals over in Chatham and Monomoy Island waters and the flash point for fishermen and marine mammal protectors.
Another such arena may well be the Community Room in Nantucket's Public Safety Building at 4 Fairgrounds Road on April 16. That's when the Harbor & Shellfish Advisory Board holds its next meeting, this one at 5pm. During this meeting, the board is slated to discuss a resolution for which the island group, the Seal Abatement Coalition, is seeking HSAB's recommendation that the Board of Selectmen support SAC's plan for more research on the impacts of the burgeoning gray seal population in our waters on commercial and recreational fishing, shellfish populations and the economic boost thaty saltwater fishing gives Nantucket from spring through early fall. The Seal Abatement Coalition contends that the perceived population explosion of gray seals in Cape and Islands waters keeps fishermen away from Nantucket, is safety issue because they draw sharks into areas where humans swim and surf, and prevents fishermen from fishing on coveted spots such as Great Point and elsewhere along the east shore. This group is angling to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to allow people to move close to where seals haul out and shoo them off the beach so they can again fish in these areas. SAC also wants to use underwater Seal Scrammers, which emit radio frequencies that drive seals off.
Also likely to be in attendance at this meeting are representatives of the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program who's mission it is to ensure the safety and prosperity of marine mammals in our waters. If you care about either of these causes, I encourage you to attend this meeting.
From my book, "Nantucket: A Natural History," which published June 2012, here's a little gray seal background for you. Hope to see you at our meeting.
"...With their breeding locations now including Green and Seal Islands in
Maine in addition to those three locations, these seals are less likely to
migrate north to breed, because there is more food per seal in our area
than is available to the Canadian colonies. Upwards of 2,500 pups, one per
female, are born annually on Muskeget from January into early February.
Gray seal researchers, including Stephanie Wood, a contract biologist for
Integrated Statistics in Woods Hole, and Solange Brault, an associate professor
in the UMass Boston biology department, count seals by the number
of females and their pups, so 2,500 females giving birth on Muskeget
means at least 5,000 seals in our waters. That’s not counting males, which
Wood and Brault admit are much tougher to track because they can have
up to six mates.
What these population statistics mean to fishermen is that the hundreds
of gray seals occupying Great Point during much of the year has
forced the Trustees of Reservations, which owns and manages the 1,117-
acre Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,
owners of the 21-acre tip of Great Point, to close off the Point to vehicle
and foot traffic for most of each year since 2008. That perfect fishing experience
at the end of Nantucket’s index finger no longer exists.
Already frustrated with seasonal beach closures instituted by the Trustees
to enforce federal and state laws protecting nesting piping plovers
and least and roseate terns since the mid-1990s, three surf fishermen
and year-round island residents—Peter Krogh, Guy Snowden and Peter
Howell—driven by memories of the heady experience of fishing from the
tip of Great Point sans seals, hatched the Seal Abatement Coalition during
the fall of 2011. The purpose: to diffuse the impact of gray seals on
recreational saltwater fishing in Nantucket waters. SAC’s stated mission is
to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) so that the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which protects marine
life and also regulates ocean fishing in federal waters through its National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), removes gray seals from its “rare status”
listing, thereby loosening up enforcement of the act as applied to gray
seals and allowing fishermen back onto Great Point’s terminus regardless
of the seals. This would allow people to fish within much closer proximity
to the seals without incurring fines and jail sentences, and it would at
least partially restore that magical fishing experience. The fishermen are
also trying to persuade NOAA to allow the use of sonic seal dispersing
equipment, called seal scrammers, which have been successfully deployed
in Oregon and Scotland for repelling seals from commercial fishing areas.