Shark/seal overpopulation strategies test fishermen, environmentalists and beachgoers

By now, most of America knows that Cape Cod, the arm-shaped peninsula extending off eastern Massachusetts into the Atlantic Ocean, has a Gray Seal problem.

Perhaps 50,000 of the slug-shaped animals, which can be over 8 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds, summer on the Cape’s beaches in concentrations so great that they are visible from space. And because each eats up to 50 pounds of fish each day, there isn’t much left for the commercial and recreational fishermen to catch once the Gray Seals, a rare species, have had their fill.

So guess how commercial fishermen feel about Gray Seals, whose population on the Cape has exploded since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, which made it illegal to kill seals. (Up until then, some towns paid bounties to seal hunters).

But the seals’ ravenous fish predation isn’t the only problem. Great White Sharks, a few up to nearly 20 feet long, feed on Gray Seals. The sharks, which number in the hundreds off the coast, patrol the shoreline to feed on seals entering or leaving the water, and throughout the summer there are daily beach closures due to shark sightings. In recent years there were several scares and non-fatal attacks on bathers. Then last September, a 26-year-old boogie boarder was bitten and killed, becoming Massachusetts’ first shark attack fatality in more than 80 years.

And now the fight is about sharks AND seals…and what to do about them. Fans of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” have watched the issue play out on television, and it has been covered extensively by the New England press for years. The controversy appeared on the front page of the Aug. 20 front page of The New York Times, where it is something of a local story given the number of moneyed summer guests from greater New York who visit the Cape each summer.

Chamber of Commerce types worry that the shark threat — signs warning of the presence of Great White Sharks greet beach goers at beach entrances — will scare off some of the more than 5 million visitors to Cape Cod, whose tourism industry adds about $4 billion annually to the Massachusetts economy. (Think of the character of Larry Vaughn, the mayor of Amity in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller “Jaws,” and you’ll get the picture.)

Scientists and environmentalists worry a shark panic will lead to the killing of large numbers of seals and sharks.

Surfers, bathers and boogie boarders worry they won’t be able to get back in the water, and elected officials are looking for responsible ways to caution beachgoers without terrifying them while seeking answers from scientists about how to minimize the threat.

Now there’s a public relations challenge!

It’s unclear whose point of view will prevail, and much of that will depend on how the competing messages are conveyed and received by policy makers charged with trying to do the right thing.

— BOB UNGER

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Bob Unger  508-542-1252
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Barbara LeBlanc  603-486-8760
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