The Seals of Disapproval, and the Return of Jaws

Posted on July 12, 2019 by Samuel I. Gutter

We are fortunate to live on Cape Cod, where the abundant marine life is a consistent source of joy.  We watch osprey and terns diving for fish, and crabs scuttling along the beach.  The local radio station announces when the blues and stripers are running, and where best to find them.

But all is not well in and on the water.  In the midst of stories about the depletion of marine resources, the Cape, we now know, has an overabundance of a particular marine mammal:  the grey seal.  Once widely hunted by early European settlers and then by fisherman who viewed them as competitors for the fishstock, in recent years the seals have rebounded with stunning success.  An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 grey seals make their home on the Cape, densely clustering in areas like the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off Chatham, where the seals are so plentiful that they can be seen from space.

Many people, of course, love the seals, with their sleek fur, woeful eyes, and playful antics.  But people aren’t the only ones attracted to seals:  sharks “love” them, too, for obviously different (and decidedly gustatory) reasons.  And not just any sharks.  We’re talking about great white sharks, the predatory hunters with rows of razor-sharp teeth that inspire primal fear among beachgoers.  After all, while “Jaws” was set in the mythical New York town of Amity, the locals all know that it was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard, a scant few miles off Cape Cod.

Given the huge seal population, even the most inept and myopic shark should have no problem finding something it likes on the seal take-out menu.  And Jaws aside, sharks are not known to intentionally hunt humans.  Shark attacks are rare – generally believed to be the result of human/seal mistaken identity.  But last August, a swimmer in Truro, on the Outer Cape, suffered serious injuries from an attack by a great white 50 yards off shore, and a month later the Cape experienced its first fatal shark attack since 1936, when a man riding a boogie board was attacked and killed by a great white in Wellfleet, close to shore.

While attacks are rare, shark sightings are becoming more common.  The vigilant can even track sightings on The Sharktivity App.  Sightings have forced the temporary closure of popular Cape beaches, likely causing some to consider the appeal of alternate vacations on quiet mountain lakes, where the top aquatic predator is the largemouth bass.  And that presents another sort of problem.  Sharks might thrive on seals, but Cape Cod thrives on tourism, and sharks (other than sales of toothy t-shirts) are bad for business.

Enter Willy Planinshek and his partner Kevin McCarthy of Deep Blue LLC, who have come forward with a plan to use an underwater sound system to scare the seals away from beaches.  Where the seals go, their theory holds, the sharks will follow.  Although Messrs. Planinshek and McCarthy have no particular expertise, funding, prototype or research to back up their proposal, they still managed to draw a capacity crowd to a meeting of the Barnstable County Commission to consider the concept.  They have been invited back in the fall for further consideration.

But as we all know, even the best ideas are often beset by regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles.  In this case, the Barnstable County Commissioners will be well-advised to read the Marine Mammal Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. 1361, et seq.  Under the MMPA, it is illegal to “take” any marine mammal without a permit.  Moreover, “take” is broadly defined to include not only the hunting and killing of marine mammals, but harassing them, as well – which is, after all, the entire point of the underwater sound blast.  Additionally, the ensuing federal permitting process would surely trigger some level of NEPA review.  And let’s not forget potential applicability of the Coastal Zone Management Act, as well as federal and state endangered species laws (grey seals aren’t endangered, but other marine species that frequent the area might be).

Such hurdles aside, the ultimate question remains whether any such plan, if approved, will even work.  Seals eager to get to their mating grounds might habituate to the sounds, or simply swim with their heads above water.  As the fictional Ian Malcolm (played with perfect nerdiness by Jeff Goldblum) proclaimed in Jurassic Park:  “Life will not be contained.  Life breaks free.  It expands to new territories, crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.”  In more colloquial terms, beware the unintended consequences of messing with Mother Nature – seals and sharks included.



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