Grey Seal Cost Analysis

The presence of grey seals in Cape Cod and other regions of Coastal New England may be assessed objectively with respect to the value the seals provide to the region, both intrinsically and instrumentally, in comparison to the costs they also present.

Intrinsic Value of Grey Seals

Intrinsic value of the grey seals refers to the seals’ inherent value in and of themselves, for their own sake.

  • “inherent value of nonhuman life” and notes that species “have a value in themselves, a value neither conferred nor revocable, but springing from a species’ long evolutionary heritage and potential or even from the mere fact of its existence” (Soulé 731). The very value inherent to the animals themselves, aside from any useful purposes they may serve or sources of income they may provide, cannot be disregarded simply because a quantitative measurement cannot be attached to it.
  • This quality is nearly impossible to quantify due to its reflection of the value of the seals’ presence on Cape Cod excluding any tangible benefits derived from their presence; it reflects the value of their presence alone, which of course may also vary depending on the specific person evaluating the matter.

Instrumental Benefits

Instrumental value of the gray seals refers to the seals’ usefulness as means to another end.

  • Grey Seals as a Model for Species Recovery: The presence of gray seals in New England serves as an exemplary success story for the work of animal protection acts and organizations. Before the 1980s gray seals were scarce in North America, largely due to bounties in New England that killed up to 135,000 seals prior to the early 1960s. When the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act outlawed seal hunting in 1972, the gray seal population began to recuperate in Maine and Cape Cod where few predators existed to hinder their recovery. As evidence of their dramatic recovery, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service a 2011 survey recorded more than 15,700 seals in Cape Cod. The ability to monitor the gray seal’s recovery in New England offers a wealth of information to scientists and serves as an example of the effectiveness of animal protection efforts that may be modeled in the future if scientists or government agencies wish to promote the recovery of other species (Bidgood).
  • Grey Seals as a Source of Ecosystem Support: As Linda Pannozzo explores in her book The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: An Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal, grey seals play a valuable role in the ecosystems they inhabit, especially considering their role as a top predator of the ecosystem. The seals have heavily influenced the evolution of species they interact with, including cod, in countless ways- from how the animals behave to how they adapt, evolve, and function. According to Pannozzo, relationships such as these “are what provide stability and resilience in complex ecosystems and make a rich biodiversity possible in the first place,” (Pannozzo 104)
  • Ecotourists take photos of gray seals congregated on the beach. Photo Credit: Mat McNally, Flickr

    Ecotourists take photos of gray seals congregated on the beach. Photo Credit: Mat McNally, Flickr

    Grey Seals as the Subject of Ecotourism: New England is home to many companies specializing in “seal-watching” tours, which typically appeal to tourists and involve a boat ride to known haul-out areas of seals. There exists the potential to derive a financial profit from allowing tourists to view the seals in their natural habitat, while the seals themselves remain untouched. Thus the seals inhabiting the coast present a new line of ecotourism to the community, which is already a popular vacation destination. To consider a specific case, the company Blue Claw Boat Tours offers tours to see harbor seals through Cape Cod, from Orleans through Pleasant Bay to a beach break in Chatham.


While the recovery of a protected marine mammal is generally considered a positive occurrence, the recuperation of the grey seal has several costs associated with it as well.

  • Potential Threat of Increased Shark Presence: In the 1970s great white sharks were rare on the
    Photo Credit: Cape Times, 1976

    Photo Credit: Cape Times, 1976

    coast of New England, with only one or two recorded sightings each year. In 2012, however, there were over twenty confirmed sightings on Cape Cod beaches alone. Scientists have tagged 34 great white sharks in the region, and monitoring their migration patterns shows the sharks generally swim out to sea or south in the winter but habitually return to Cape Cod every summer. The sharks return due to the bursting population of seals that have recovered in the region, including the gray seal. Because tourism is Cape Cod’s main industry (representing $850,000,000 worth of commerce in 2011), locals worry a shark attack would damage the region’s attractiveness as a tourist destination. Others point out, however, that the presence of sharks can often intrigue and excite tourists rather than repel them, and that local businesses may even be able to capitalize on this curiosity. For example, shark t-shirts and stuffed toys are already “flying off gift shop shelves” in Chatham, a Cape Cod fishing village, and there is talk of making the region a center for ecotourism (Crawford).

  • Potential Source of Competition for the Fishing Industry: Even though they are not presently endangered, the gray seals are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and therefore present a great challenge to fishermen in the area who essentially compete with the seals for fish catches, particularly of the reduced cod stocks. Tensions run high with local Nantucket fisherman who view the seals as a threat to their livelihood; in 2011 five seals were shot dead in Cape Cod despite the laws protecting them.