Gray Seals
September 1, 2012

 photo courtesy of NOAA

I’ve never been a person who can contain my passion for animals. I get bubbly just meeting a sheep down the road or seeing cows in a distant pasture. When Jupiter and I walk in the woods or by the ocean, I seem to come alive. My mind can be captivated by the rustling of leaves by a squirrel, the beautiful voice of a songbird, and the graceful movements in the ocean waves by my good friends, the seals. Lately, however, the Gray seals on Nantucket have been under attack by people who don’t seem to understand that the ocean is a home to many different species and is not simply a place for humans to monopolize and use as they see fit.

You see, many years ago, in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, bounties were offered for killing seals off of the New England coast. Seals were slaughtered for their furs and viewed as a nuisance, as they ate valuable cod. These killings drove the seals—both the Gray seals and the smaller harbor seals—to the brink of extinction. Then, in 1972, my favorite piece of legislation since the Constitution was enacted: The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA offered sweeping protection for marine mammals in the U.S. as well as regulation of the importation of marine mammal products. (The MMPA is the reason we don’t import Harp seal pup skins into the U.S.!) Not only it is forbidden to kill marine mammals, but it is also illegal to approach them at close range, as this can disrupt them. So, forty years after the enactment of these regulations, there are healthier populations of many species of seals and whales along the New England Coast.

Today, my beloved Nantucket Island is in the midst of a growing controversy. Muskeget Island, a neighboring small island off of Nantucket, is home to the largest southernmost colony of Gray seals in the U.S. Many people would view this comeback as a wild success, but others find it to be problematic. Fishermen, both commercial and sport, do not like to compete with the seals for local fish. It hurts commercial fishermen financially when they can’t bring in their catch for market. Sport fishermen are annoyed that these intelligent mammals are savvy enough to steal fish off of lines. Others are angry that the high seal population has drawn in sharks—whose diet consists largely of seals—to the area. Over the last year and a half, seals who have been shot have been washing ashore along the New England coast. A group of angered citizens wants to amend the MMPA so that the seals can be scared off with stun equipment or perhaps even “culled,” or killed by people in order to reduce the population. Recently, these citizens have even hired a lobbyist to fight the MMPA in Washington to see if it can be amended. These are dangerous times for seals.

But I think we all need to find a way to live alongside seals. We need to develop new commerce to help fisherman find new ways to make a living. Ecotourism is a better way to bring money into a region with such great natural beauty. Ecotourism encourages travel to an area that values its environment, natural resources, and wildlife. People who travel to these areas support the economy through increasing the demand for hotels, restaurants, tours, and shopping, with the idea of leaving the area as natural and “green” as possible.

Ecotourism works. People travel to see protected wildlife and wild places all over the world. I believe that there has to be a better effort to coexist with seals. Our world has become smaller, increasingly crowded, and more polluted. The wildlife of our planet has done nothing to harm us; it is people who have caused them distress. We owe it to all animals and to ourselves to learn to live in harmony with them.

Three things you can do:
1.    Talk with friends, family, and teachers. Brainstorm ideas that would offer humane ways to coexist peacefully with wildlife and all of nature. Talking about the issue with others helps to educate us all.

2.    READ. This is a hot topic right now in the New England area. Read local articles in newspapers and on-line, and share your information. You may want to turn your interest and passion into a career in conservation!

3.    Write. Write to your local and federal legislators. Tell them of your concern for the future of the MMPA. They want to hear from you! Such important federal regulations were enacted to protect our wildlife. These regulations, like the seal populations, should not be tampered with!

Websites to visit, to learn more:

Inquirer and Mirror

Marine Mammal Protection Act