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The seal problem

The population of gray seals on Cape has exploded in recent years. Is it time to cull the herd?
Posing for the paparazzi during a seal tour in Chatham Harbor. Photo by Maggie Kulbokas.
Posing for the paparazzi during a seal tour in Chatham Harbor. Photo by Maggie Kulbokas.

Editor's note: The following excerpt is published with the permission of Boston Magazine. The original article appeared in Boston Magazine's July issue.

A few summers ago, after my family and I had moved to Cape Cod from the Washington, DC, area, we were introduced to an unexpected treat: seal watching. Plopped on our chairs at Nauset Beach, a short drive from our home, in Orleans, we watched groups of cute gray seals frolicking offshore. Other beachgoers joined us in this happy pastime. To behold a seal’s face when it bobs up out of the water—those large, imploring eyes; that splay of whiskers; the dark, glistening nose—is to have the feeling you’re looking at a lovable Labrador retriever, with flippers. Seal watching is so popular around here, in fact, that special tours are offered out of Chatham. “Seeing these adorable mammals in their natural habitat,” one tour operator promises, “will make your family vacation one to remember.”

Not everybody loves the local seals, though. “Wolves that went into the water” is what my neighbor Bill Amaru calls them. Amaru is a fisherman who operates his boat out of Chatham harbor and has been working the Cape waters for a living since the early 1970s, when he was just out of college. He began noticing seals in the late 1980s, and then watched as their numbers gradually increased over the years—until the mid-2000s, when the population exploded. These days, he says, he can see between 4,000 and 5,000 seals on a single fishing trip in the area around Monomoy Island, south of Chatham. The National Marine Fisheries Service very crudely estimates that nearly 16,000 seals now inhabit the Cape and Islands, and one local marine biologist, Betty Lentell, who works with the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, projects that the population will grow at a rate of about 20 percent annually for the foreseeable future.

That’s a lot of seals.

Read the rest of Mr. Starobin's story here.

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