Members of the Cape Cod community and local wildlife experts have been expressing concern as the gray seal population in Cape Cod waters has grown alarmingly fast in the last few years.
An estimate given by the National Marine Fisheries Service states that there are now roughly 16,000 seals inhabiting Cape Cod waters, and a survey recently published by the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association projects that this number will continue to grow by 20 percent annually.
Fishing makes up a large percentage of Cape Cod’s economy, and many local fishermen are openly frustrated and concerned by the number of seals they encounter on daily fishing trips. Fishermen are now in direct competition for striped bass, bluefish, and cod—three of the most sought after fish, and also the preferred diet of gray seals.
An adult gray seal—weighing on average between 500 to 800 pounds—eats approximately 48 pounds of seafood every day. With the seal population at this critical mass, the massive amount of food being consumed has caused a severe decline in the local fish populations of already over-fished species.
According to research presented by the Provincetown Center for Costal Studies, counts have steadily produced lower numbers, and are heading towards dangerous territory. According to Massachusetts state law, if a population falls below a predetermined level, restrictions or bans on the catching of certain species will have to be placed; with Cape Cod’s massive fishing industry, such actions could potentially put hundreds of men and women out of work.
The Massachusetts Shark Research Program is also concerned about the large number of seals, not because of their predatory habits, but because of the predators that are drawn to them. As the seal population swells, increased numbers of seal-eating species also inhabit Cape Cod waters—most notably the great white shark, which was spotted off the coast of Cape Cod 21 times in 2012, a sharp increase from the four recorded in 2004.
Easily mistaken as seals, swimmers are more at risk than ever as larger numbers of sharks follow the seals inland towards popular beaches in search of food. The Cape saw many closed beaches this summer due to shark sightings in the area. Next to businesses that supply fresh seafood, Cape Cod’s biggest source of income is its tourism and hospitality industry.
With tourists increasingly more hesitant to venture into Cape waters, beachfront hotel and business owners have already seen a noticeable decline in profits. “The beaches are what make Cape Cod so desirable as a family vacation spot,” said the owner of Brewster campground, Sweetwater Forest. “People hear about the sharks and they’re afraid. All we have is the ocean. If people aren’t coming here for that, they’re not coming at all.”
Between the concerns for Cape Cod ecology and economy, and the safety of tourists, Cape Cod officials are under increasing pressure to instate policy changes to handle what the locals simply call “the seal problem.” Suggested plans, ranging from relocation to culling, are being considered, but something must be done soon. There is no doubt that the Cape cannot sustain these large numbers of seals indefinitely without serious detriment to life on Cape Cod.