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Rebounding gray seal populations in New England causing ruckus

Gray seals resting on rocks.
Gray seals resting on rocks.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Rebounding gray seal populations in the North Atlantic have been getting lots of cheers and jeers lately. Although their populations were decimated by the mid 20th century, conservation efforts, laws against hunting them, and an abundance of food from Canada to Long Island have all served to bring gray seals surging back into the waters off New England.

Also known as “horsehead” seals, gray seals can grow to be more than 10-feet long and weigh as much as 600 lbs. And while conservationists and tour boat captains are cheering, such as Keith Lincoln who operates a seal watch ferry to Monomoy Island (off Cape Cod) who states that sighting have gone up from about “50 animals per trip in 1989, to more than 2,000 now,” beach goers and charter fishing boats in Massachusetts say they are being crowded out along the shore, where the animals not only congregate enmasse, but soil large stretches of sand compete for fish. The animals have also been blamed for the increase of shark sightings near land as they come in to hunt their “favorite prey.”

In fact, a number of residents in Nantucket are calling for a controlled hunt (similar to a deer cull) to reduce the local population, while others are at least asking the federal government to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow for the dispersion of gray seals, a move heartedly objected to by conservationists who state it would do more harm than good. In addition, Brian Sharp, manager of marine mammal rescue for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, based in Cape Cod, stated that he believes claims that the gray seals are having an adverse effect on the local fishing industry are overblown, and noted that the animals generally feed on fish such as “sand lance, which have little commercial value.”