Seals at Great Point, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Stacy Fusaro.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the SAC and how is it organized?
The SAC is a group of individuals and organizations that believes that the rapid expansion of the gray seal population poses a danger to the recreational and commercial uses of the Cape and Islands’ inshore waters. The SAC is incorporated. It has filed as a non-profit, 501(c)4 organization and is establishing a charitable wing through the Community Foundation of Nantucket. It has engaged a Washington lobbyist and has secured the counsel of an environmental lawyer. It has established this web site.
The SAC exists to educate, raise awareness and provide a voice for all those who share the common goal of preserving a traditional way of life along the shorelines of the Cape and Islands. This mission transcends politics, providing a common goal that unites recreational and commercial fishermen, beach-goers, surfers and swimmers and environmentalists.
What is the cause of the gray seal population increase?
Two things: First, gray seals in New England waters have few natural predators and therefore negligible constraints on population growth. Second, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) prohibits killing, harming or harassing gray seals.
How many gray seals are there in the waters of the Cape and Islands?
The SAC does not have an exact figure because government gray seal census data is not up to date. Estimates range widely from 10,000 to 300,000 with a population growth rate of up to 40% annually.
Responsibility for monitoring the gray seal population resides with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and specifically with its Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole. The last comprehensive seal abundance survey was conducted in 2001. The SAC is urging that a current survey be mounted by NOAA. It also has contacted the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to seek their help in gauging the growth and environmental impact of the gray seal population. Meanwhile the burgeoning gray seal population is visible and palpable to those frequenting the shorelines of the Cape and Islands, especially in the colder months when seals are hauled-out on our beaches.
The impact is multidimensional, potentially threatening the availability, safety and sanitation of the region’s shorelines . Recreational anglers have their fish snatched from them in the water and on the beach by gray seals. Commercial fishermen are facing depleted fish stocks and are hauling in fish infected with parasites believed to be borne by seal excrement. Beachgoers, bathers and surfers are spooked by gray seals which, when mature, weigh between 500 and 800 pounds. Beachgoers are explicitly advised by NOAA to: “Never get in the water with seals.” Meanwhile, beaches are being closed as sharks gather to prey on the seals. Where seals haul-out in great numbers, as in Muskeget, environmental damage occurs. The overall impact of the gray seal infestation is a progressive degradation of the quality of human life at the water’s edge, of the shoreline ecosystem and of the tourist and fishing-related economies.
What is the impact of the gray seal population explosion?
The problem of seals preempting human activity such as fishing, surfing and beach-going in general is a big problem for Nantucket in particular. Nantucket has been a historic and prolific fishing spot. But its shorelines are increasingly girdled by seals which are diminishing and driving away both the fisherman and the fish stock while actively interfering with both recreational and charter boat angling. Great Point, once regarded as a world-class anglers’ destination, is now essentially a seal preserve and has been closed to people. Fishermen, once drawn to the Island, are now headed elsewhere. Meanwhile, nearby Muskeget Island has been appropriated by the seals as their principal breeding ground on the East coast and is being trashed in the process. Enforcement of the MMPA has resulted in prohibiting humans from coming within 150 feet of seals and from harassing them in any way. So long as this extraordinary protection is in place the seal encroachment will continue. Were it to be lifted, human activity could be resumed and abatement measures tested and pursued. Note: At present it is illegal to encroach upon or harass seals under penalty of law and the SAC does not advocate any unlawful activity.
Why is Nantucket leading the charge on seal abatement?
Right now simply nothing, because the Marine Mammal Protection Act affords the seals extraordinary protection. This has led to their proliferation. The SAC is seeking relief from this Act. We believe that the following premises or provisions of the MMPA as they apply to gray seals are either no longer valid, have outlived their usefulness, or have become counterproductive.
The Act states, in its “Findings and Declaration of Policy,” that:
1. “Certain species and population stocks of marine mammals are, or may be, in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of man’s activities…” The SAC believes this is demonstrably no longer true with respect to gray seals.
2. “Such species… should not be permitted to diminish beyond the point at which they cease to be a significant functioning element in the ecosystem…or below their optimum sustainable population.” The SAC believes that a current gray seal census would confirm that the New England gray seal population has recovered well above these levels.
3. “It is the sense of the Congress that they (marine mammals, including gray seals) should be protected…to the greatest extent feasible commensurate with sound policies of resource management…. Consistent with this primary objective, it should be the goal to obtain an optimum sustainable population keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the habitat.” In view of the ongoing dramatic expansion of the gray seal population in our waters and the absence of any apparent natural constraints on this population growth, the SAC believes that the Act is no longer consistent with “sound policies of resource management” or the criterion of “optimum sustainable population” as they apply to gray seals in New England.
What can be done?
The SAC believes dispersing the seals by reducing the prescribed 150 feet buffer zone coupled with deterrence guidance (e.g. measures to deter human-seal interactions which might be harmful to either or result in violations of the MMPA) may help, but more needs to be understood about this.
To this end, the SAC is seeking to engage various resources to obtain a sound scientific understanding of the problem and possible solutions. It is investigating the use of certain purpose-designed electronic devices to repel and disperse seals. These devices utilize energy pulses, sonar or acoustics to create “sound” that is repulsive to seals. There has been some experimentation with these devices, one of which is called a “seal scrammer,” and other devices being perfected in conjunction with use by the U.S. Navy. SAC is gathering practical as well as scientific data on these devices.
What specific measures are you contemplating?
The SAC is publicizing the problem and seeking its amelioration through an amendment or exception to the MMPA. It is soliciting the endorsement and support of individuals and local organizations and is circulating a petition for relief from the MMPA. It is pursuing a mutually reinforcing two-track approach, with one track gathering data and the other disseminating information and building a base for an effective lobbying campaign.
How is the SAC pursuing its goals?
The SAC is fully committed to finding a real solution to the multidimensional problems presented by the burgeoning gray seal population. It has been officially endorsed by the 500 member Nantucket Anglers’ Club. It’s research mission has been endorsed by the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce. It has a current (and rapidly expanding) base of 1,200 supporters who have signed its petition seeking relief rom the MMPA. It benefits from the advice and assistance of a public relations expert, a website designer, an environmental lawyer, a Washington lobbyist and a marine scientist.
What resources has the SAC engaged in pursuit of its goals?
Note: The SAC believes that the information contained herein is correct based upon published reports, visual observations and expert material. The SAC believes that far more scientific data is needed and part of its mission is to encourage and facilitate such research and to share the results with the public.
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