Is it time to address the large seal population to prevent shark attacks?

CHATHAM, Mass. — Just off the beaches of Chatham, thousands of seals are now thriving in waters where they were once close to extinction.

Federal legislation from almost 50 years ago, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is credited with saving the species.

Still in place today, the law protects not only seals, but other marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and polar bears, making it illegal to harass, hunt, or even feed these species.

Great White sharks have followed seals, one of their favorite food sources, back to Cape Cod.

Captain Keith Lincoln has been navigating the waters off Chatham for three decades, and even back when he started, he’d see evidence that sharks were following the seals.

“We’ve always seen Great White damage on seals,” said Captain Lincoln. “You’d see seals out there with major bite marks or huge chunks missing.”

In recent years, sharks have been attacking people in Massachusetts.

Last summer, Arthur Medici lost his life off the coast of Wellfleet and William Lytton was attacked off a Truro beach.

“It will be truly unfortunate if another person is killed or maimed by a shark this summer,” said Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty.

Beaty is staking out the controversial position that it is time to address the large number of seals in the area.

“The long-term solution is amending the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, so that our region, our state, and our towns have more local control, so that if and when it's necessary, we are going to have to cull the seal population," said Beaty.

Hunting seals is what reduced the population close to extinction back in the 1960s.  They were viewed as a threat to the fishing industry and the federal government gave hunters a stipend if they could produce evidence they killed a seal.

Andrea Bogomolni is a lead investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and is leading several studies on seals, both on Cape Cod and at the Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine.

She believes the law is still necessary today.  “The reason for having this protection isn’t a numbers game.  It’s that that we’re trying to understand their ecological role and right now we don’t know what it is.”

Bogomolni says the return of the seals and the sharks is really only new to this generation, and that in essence, ocean life is returning to what it once was.

Now that scientists have more seals to monitor, they’re learning more about how these sea mammals play an important role in balancing our ecosystem.

“They often eat the species of fish that eat other fish,” explained Bogomolni.  “If you’re thinking about having a cod rebound, seals might actually be helpful to that because they eat things like hake which are voracious predators.”

Good environmental news doesn’t always calm the fears of tourists, who might be scared off by ominous signs warning of the danger of shark attacks.

A sign warns visitors to Long Nook Beach of recent shark sightings in Truro, Mass. where, in August 2018, the first shark attack on a human occurred at the popular summer tourist destination since 2012. (Merrily Cassidy/The Cape Cod Times via AP)

“We have a tourism-driven economy here. People come here to use our beaches, to swim, and recreate,” said Beaty.  “People certainly have the option of going elsewhere. They are not going to want to come to the Cape if their kids are going to get munched by a shark.”

Sharks are back for a number of reasons, according to Bogomolni.  She says seals shouldn’t be taking all the blame.

Lincoln thinks people on the Cape will ultimately learn how to adapt to nature’s new normal.

“The way I look at it is, California, Florida, they’ve always had shark issues and their tourism, and their economies keep moving forward each year.”