What should we do?

When considering all of the available information on the return of grey seals to Cape Code and other regions of Coastal New England, several strategies could be employed. Below is a proposed best course of action, along with some explanations that helped guide the decisions. Obviously, when predicting the future, there is a high degree of uncertainty that can never be fully resolved, so advice is offered based on models and based on our current knowledge.

Educate the public on the abundance data of grey seals

  • To most people, it appears that the population of gray seals has increased. However, prior to massive development along the coast, the population of gray seals was extremely large. Thus, the recent increase in grey seals along Cape Cod is merely an increase back toward the baseline level. This illustrates the problem of shifting baselines; particularly, if there are not accurate and available records of population levels from long ago, when data does began to be taken, that initial data point is taken as the baseline even though it may deviate greatly from the true baseline.
  • The public must be educated to realize that grey seals are not overpopulating Cape Cod but are merely returning to their native environment. Grey seals once lived in Cape Cod and are now experiencing a surge in population, but this does not exceed levels prior to human development in the area.
  • The hope in this education is that, as people realize the population dynamics of grey seals, they will hopefully be more open to recognizing gray seals as natives of the area rather than as invaders.

Educate the public on the role of gray seals in ecosystem support.

  • As explained in the section on the value of grey seals in coastal New England, gray seals provide a source of ecosystem support. In the book The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: An Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal, author Linda Pannozzo highlights the role of the gray seal in the ecosystem as a whole. As a top predator in the food web, seals exert top-down forces, which are important for maintaining the delicate balance of the biotic and abiotic communities. Where the Wild Things Were, by William Stolzenburg, expands on the idea of top-down forces controlling ecosystems, employing startling examples and case studies of how ecosystems failed or were severely altered when top predators were removed. This book argues for the protection of top predators to allow ecosystems to function healthily and naturally. When the populations of top predators are exploited, the entire ecosystem is disrupted, often in fatal ways. Although some people have suggested culls on gray seals to decrease their numbers, this seems to be a bad idea because it has a high likelihood of disturbing the balance in the ecosystem provided by the top-down forces of gray seals. The top-down forces help preserve ecosystem diversity and health.

Avoid culls for both intrinsic value of grey seals and for the high political and economic costs associated with removing grey seals.

  • Besides education, the first and foremost piece of advice we have is to avoid culls on seals. This is important because of the intrinsic value of seals. Many environmental and animal rights organizations would be highly dissatisfied with decisions to slaughter large numbers of seals. The grey seals have an inherent value that cannot be quantified, and their right to life is important. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the fact that the rise in gray seal populations is a return to the norm cannot be overstated. Conducting a cull would serve to reverse Mother Nature’s attempt to restore original conditions.
  • Furthermore, there are political and economic costs that would be associated with removing grey seals from the Cape Cod area. There is currently strong consumer resistance in the U.S. against the seal harvesting techniques and against products from culled seals. The market for seal goods in the U.S. is thus very small, which is in contrast to some other areas of the world where the demand for seal goods is greater and drives some decisions. However, when considering Cape Cod, it is important to take into account the attitudes of U.S. citizens. Based on these consumer attitudes, it is reasonable to assume that a good percentage of the public would not be in favor of a large-scale seal cull in the Cape Cod area. A survey could be conducted to directly measure public support or distaste of the idea of a cull.
  • Additionally, there is a large economic cost for conducting the cull itself.  For example, the estimated cost for a program to remove 78,000 seals from Sable Island (Nova Scotia) was 15 million dollars. Depending on the size of the cull, a relatively similar cost would be needed for the operation in Cape Cod. This is a large economic cost for a cull that would not have any consumer demand for the seal products anyways. Thus, the seals would be dying without being used due to the lack of consumer demand, and this would infringe on the idea of intrinsic value and instrumental value. Particularly, the seals would be dying just for the sake of dying and with no appreciation of their life, and they would not be used for economic gains or human consumption.
  • The attitudes in the U.S. are generally in favor of protecting large marine mammals, as evidenced by laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Thus, a cull would not be a good idea for dealing with the rise in population of gray seals around Cape Cod.

Recognize the possibility that more grey seals likely increase the presence of sharks in the Cape Cod area.  

  • Take the appropriate measures to inform the community of the possibility of sharks and to proceed with activities with the knowledge that, as always, there are predators in the waters in which we conduct our recreational activities. Many people who live around Cape Cod recreationally fish, ski, boat, and swim in the water, particularly in the summer. There is always a risk of marine predators being in the water, but it is true that there could be an increased presence of sharks in the area as the gray seal population increases around Cape Cod. Thus, the public must be informed of the potential for sharks to be in the area.

Find a way to address the potential competition between grey seals and fishermen. Perhaps some new technology could be developed and applied such that it would reduce the interaction between seals and fish. 

  • Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 11.21.17 AMGrey seals have largely been blamed for the dwindling cod populations, although as Linda Pannozzo points out, often these claims are unsupported. Still, there is definitely a perception that grey seals are competitors with fishermen. To decrease this tension, technologies could be employed that act to reduce the potential competition. For instance, pingers could be used to acoustically drive seals away from fishing gear (but there would have to be testing to ensure that no negative side effects to the seals or to other animals would result from the sound frequencies). However, this technology could be expensive to implement and could be ineffective on seals. Seals are intelligent animals and might even become attracted to the noise if they learn to associate the noise with areas of readily available fish.
  • Alternately, the government could subsidize new jobs for people who are in the fishing industry. For instance, the government could provide monetary incentives for fishermen to switch into other fields such as ecotourism businesses. Perhaps some fishermen could use the increase in gray seals to their advantage; instead of fishing for dwindling supplies of cod and other fish, these people could instead run ecotourism businesses that would take visitors on boats to see the gray seals. The government could provide some subsidy to foster this shift.
  • It is important to note that grey seals are likely not entirely responsible for the decline in cod and other fish populations. Regardless, there is still hostility against gray seals amongst fishermen, so this subsidized shift to ecotourism could help alleviate any negative emotions.

Encourage more pro-environmental groups to lobby to protect the grey seals from culls. 

  • As discussed above, we are against calls for culls on grey seals. In order to avoid the culls, more environmental groups must be vocal in lobbying for the protection of gray seals. The U.S. government responds to public discourse, where public discourse is defined as ““a cohesive ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorizations about a specific object that frame that object in a certain way and, therefore, delimit the possibilities for action in relation to it.” There are numerous examples in history where public discourse has generated pressure on the U.S. government to address an issue.
  • One example in the marine biology realm regards whaling. In The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse, Charlotte Epstein (2008) argues that “states’ turning to save-the-whales policies can hardly be explained by security or economic interests or by any other material factors.” Instead, Epstein (2008) suggests the decline in whaling was brought about by discourse that advocated for the protection of whales as the new norm, and that the reason the West remains interested in whales today, long after whaling as a commercial practice has been abandoned, is due to the entrenched discourse that generated popular interest. Even after the practice had ended, the discourse created by anti-whaling campaigns created an ongoing interest in protecting whales because whales were involved in the creation of a new, green identity. Saving the whales has become so ingrained in popular culture that in the U.S. today, it would seem preposterous to even think about returning to whaling.
  • Although seals are a bit less ‘charismatic’ than whales in the eyes of most U.S. citizens, charisma is inherently a society-defined trait, so we believe that saving the seals could become just as successful a campaign as saving the whales. Environmental protection groups need to lobby and put political pressure to avoid culls of gray seals. To generate more support for grey seals from the general public, environmental groups need to educate the public on the atrocities of killing seals. This would put even more public pressure on governmental agencies.

Conduct scientific research to address unanswered questions about seals’ biology, ecology, and behavior.

  • The role of science is to clarify unknown variables. In marine biology, there are inherently a lot of unknowns, and we are just scratching the surface with our current knowledge of gray seals. With so many uncertainties, it would be imprudent to do anything drastic such as conduct a cull or try to eliminate grey seals in other ways. The wiser approach would be to invest more time and money in scientific research to answer questions related to the abundance, behavior, biology, and ecology of grey seals.
  • As science clarifies our questions, we can add to our knowledge base of grey seals, build better models, and make more informed decisions regarding management and policies for gray seals.

Encourage the community of Cape Cod to embrace the return of grey seals, both for their intrinsic value and for any economic benefits that could come.

  • Cape Cod citizens could use the return of grey seals to their benefit. Perhaps the area could become a place where tourists come to see large numbers of grey seals on the beaches. This could generate significant revenue for Cape Cod via ecotourism (seal-watching boats) and associated products (grey seal stuffed animals or T-shirts in stores near the beaches). Thus, the return of grey seals to Cape Cod could be viewed positively because of the miraculous recovery in and of itself, but also because it could generate economic profit for the community.