According to the July 2009 issue of the Northeast Naturalist, a quarterly journal of natural history, Massachusetts and Maine paid bounties for seals during the 19th and 20th centuries. Researchers estimate that 72,284 to 135,498 seals were killed between 1888 and 1962, “probably enough to account for regional declines in seal populations,” they wrote. “Larger numbers of bounties were paid where there were more seals and a higher human population.”
The end of the bounties and the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 helped bring the seal populations back. Today, Moynihan directs the CCNS Seal Education Team, a group of 15 docents staffing the haul-out this summer to protect the seals and educate an enthusiastic public. The program was put in place in 2010 when the haul-out, also attached to land that year, grew in popularity, with as many as 200 people visiting at low tide. “That presented a dilemma for us because, on the one hand, it presented a fantastic educational opportunity, but on the other hand, we had a situation where the people were getting too close to the seals because they could walk out to them,” she says.
And though these creatures may no longer have to count humans among their enemies, there is one predator that is not going away: the great white shark. Around 2004, Dr. Greg Skomal, a marine biologist and shark expert from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, started noticing a subtle increase in the number of sightings mainly on the eastern end of Cape Cod and adjacent to seal colonies, despite a decline in fishing. The increase is “heavily correlated with the rebound of the gray seal population,” he says.
In fact, two years ago, a beachgoer not far from the current Truro haul-out captured terrifyingly graphic photos of a great white successfully attacking a gray seal. “We’re monitoring that seal haul-out,” he says. “We know in 2010 there was an actual eyewitness account of a shark attack and killing of a seal in that area . . . That tells us, yes, at least one white shark has taken notice of those seals in that area.”
Since 2009, Skomal has tagged 18 great whites in Cape waters, tracking their movements with a network of acoustic receivers placed off the coastline. In June 2012, two electronic detections were made off Chatham, and although acoustic receivers are close to the Truro haul-out, no detections had been made as of late June, he says. “But that doesn’t mean sharks don’t go there.”
Donna Scaglione is a freelance writer living in Falmouth.
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