First ever seal tagging efforts to begin today off Chatham

Scientists hope to tag and track seven gray seals between June 12-17
Scientists will begin capturing, sampling and tagging gray seals off Chatham and Wellfleet this week. Photo by Maggie Kulbokas.

Scientists from NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) based in Woods Hole, will begin a six-day effort today to tag and track gray seals off Chatham and Wellfleet.

Marine mammal researchers will head out for Chatham Harbor early Thursday morning in hopes of capturing their first of seven adult gray seals for the study. Wednesday, the first official day of the study, will be used to organize the research team.

American and Canadian scientists from several local and national organizations will be joined by representatives from four stranding networks including Yarmouth Port-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). According to NEFSC, a  marine mammal veterinarian will also be a part of the team.

The focus on gray seals has become greater as their population continues to grow. With the growing number of seals comes the threat of great white sharks in the waters surrounding Cape Cod.  The first great white was detected off Monomoy at the end of May and Nauset Beach in Orleans was closed for a short time this weekend after a shark was spotted in the water.

“We need to know as much as we can about these animals now that they are living here in greater numbers. Over these six days, we hope to learn how to work with them effectively in the field, as well as begin to build a data set on their condition and behavior,” said Gordon Waring, head of the seal research program at NEFSC.

By sampling and tagging the seals, scientists hope to learn a great deal more about habits and movements.

According to NEFSC, capturing seals is no easy task. A research gillnet set will be used to capture the seal from one of two haul-out areas--North Beach off Chatham and Jeremy Point in Wellfleet. Researchers are hoping to avoid much more difficult water captures.

Once captured, the seal will be brought by boat to an onshore work area where it will be sedated, measured, weighed, sampled and tagged. Once the work is complete and the sedation wears off, the seal will be released back into the water.  All told, the complete process should take approximately two hours per seal, according to NEFSC.

Both satellite and GPS tags will be used to gather an abundance of information.  Tags will remain in place until molting, according to NEFSC.

In March, researchers and members of the fishing communities gathered in Chatham for the first ever Outer Cape Seal Symposium to discuss the impact of the growing seal population on water safety and the fishing industry.

As a protected species, gray seals (year-round seals) and harbor seals (migratory seals) are here to stay and it is important for scientists, local officials and residents to find a way to live with them and the great whites that trail not that far behind.

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