Spring 2019

Seal of Approval

Diverse stakeholders in Nantucket agreed that the health of the ecosystem is top priority when it comes to the management of seals.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Photo: Shutterstock

Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the gray seal population in Massachusetts is back and booming. Estimates suggest up to 50,000 gray seals now live off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts, primarily in the area of Cape Cod.

As the number of great white sharks drawn by this prey has also increased—and with it, the risk of dangerous interactions with beachgoers—some people have argued gray seals should be made exempt from federal protection and culled. It’s an idea that has also long been floated by a vocal group of recreational anglers on Nantucket who say that seals eat too many commercially valuable fish.

In 2016, Jennifer Jackman, VG05, an associate professor of political science at Salem State University who holds a master’s in animals and public policy from Cummings School, was curious to gauge public support for seals and attitudes toward management—as well as how attitudes might vary among on-site recreational anglers, voters, and tourists on Nantucket. With the help of Ren Bettencourt, VG16, then a student pursuing an M.S. in animals and public policy at Tufts, Jackman and colleagues at Salem State surveyed the three sets of stakeholders.

The results, published in the September 2018 issue of Marine Policy, are encouraging. “There wasn’t much support for lethal management of seals, even among anglers,” Jackman said. “And all three stakeholder groups said the health of the ecosystem should be the priority when it comes to the management of seals.”

Jackman said the consensus offers a great basis for finding ways to coexist with seals on the Cape and Islands. As a starting point, public officials can work to change human behaviors to reduce human-seal conflicts. Through their interviews, the researchers learned that some charter boats are “chumming”—dumping fish into the water to attract seals to entertain customers. This practice should be discouraged, Jackman said, because it habituates seals to trolling fishing boats and gear for food. Seals and sharks, meanwhile, are drawn to Chatham Harbor because of people feeding seals and cleaning fishing debris from their boats into the water.

In light of the strong support for a healthy ocean environment, conservationists can also work to improve the public’s understanding of gray seals’ role in the marine ecosystem. “Seals help create a biological pump,” explained Bettencourt, now a project coordinator for Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs. “They come to the ocean’s surface to breathe and dive down to feed, creating movement in the water that helps mix the different temperature layers.” This mixing leads to more phytoplankton, which benefit the whole ecosystem—an ever more important function since global warming is causing ocean water temperatures to stratify.

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