The Seals of Our Coastal Waters
You walk along a winter beach. The air is nippy with a brisk wind bearing down from the east. You like to get out in nature on days like this. The water is clear at this time of year and a hike is just the thing to drive those “cabin fever” blues away. You spy gulls swirling above a surprised pod of herring breaking the surface pursued by—- A seal?
Not so uncommon anymore. A variety of seals have rediscovered long ago abandoned wintering grounds from lower New England waters such as Cape Cod down the coast to upper North Carolina in some years. This comeback is a case study in many ecological dynamics from tighter hunting controls, expanding numbers, cleaner waters, access to food sources, water temperature changes, less pollution and salinity.
There are five types of seals inhabiting our local waters at present.
The sizes noted are for fully mature animals though many in are area are smaller juveniles. The grey seal, the largest and most prevalent, tops out at 880lbs and a whopping 10ft in length. Harbor seals are the second most numerous of the species. They can weigh up to 290lbs, reach 6ft in length and generally have a tan to silvery-grey coloring. Harp seals are not as common and prefer open ocean waters but can be spotted in all our coastal areas. They weigh in at 400lbs as an adult and 6ft in length. They can occasionally be found hauled up on a sunny ocean beach in winter.
Hooded seals are rare but there have been increasing sightings in our area. They are up to 8 1/2ft in length and a fully grown adult can reach 900lbs. A hooded seal’s coloring is silver-grey with its head darker than the rest of its body. The smallest seal occasionally spotted in our area is the ringed seal. At tops, they reach 5ft in length and weigh in at 150lbs. Their coloring is unique with dark spots surrounded by light grey rings. They prefer very cold water and ice to haul out onto. Rare sightings occur in more harsh winters when they roam more south of their usual habitat.
The history of the seals interaction with humans is complex. The first contact was with small groups of hunter -gatherer Amerindians using seals as a primary food source. Additionally seal hides were valued for their water repellent properties for clothing and housing and their teeth and bones were used to make tools and jewelry. Very little was wasted and therefore the hunting by small tribal groups did not impact the population.
Upon European settlement of the Americas, the large seal populations began to be heavily exploited for the export value of their pelts to Europe where seal herds had been sharply reduced by over hunting. Seal pelts became a major industry in the new world. They were pursued all along the coasts and into their pupping areas to the north. Unlike the native tribes who used everything had to offer these new hunters wasted most of the seal carcass as only the pelts had value to them.
From the earliest days of this new wasteful method of harvesting until the social and environmental pressures forced late Twentieth Century government hunting reforms in the United States, Canada, and Greenland, uncontrolled slaughter reduced all seal herds to a fraction of their former numbers. By the early twentieth century seals became rare in the North East and completely absent on the Mid Atlantic shores. The blood letting had to end.
In the 1970’s Governments of the United States, Canada, and Greenland began working together to control future harvesting and rebuild the herds. All hunting now must be done in a humane manner according to each countries mandate. At present it is illegal to hunt seals or approach within 150 ft of any seal in the United States. The only exception is for for Native Americans. Remember that seals are wild animals that look cute but can be quite dangerous if you get to close and harass them. Other countries signing on have instituted sustainable hunting quotas. There are those who would like to end all hunting of seals. Images of the cruel bludgeoning of baby harp seals of long ago have become the publicity poster for a total worldwide ban; it is an enticing argument, which I concur.
Putting controversy aside, what has been accomplished is a success story. Now we have seals returning to our backyard bays and coastal waters from Cape Cod to Cape May. Even North Carolina in some colder years has seals enjoying winter there. Some areas where the water remains colder even during the summer such as Cape Cod, Montauk Point and the islands in Block Island Sound are hosting year round colonies of seals.
But of course with every success story comes an obverse opinion. “A seal in the ointment “ one might say. There are those who are less than thrilled about the playful seals return. Some of those who live off the bounty of the sea or fish to “relax” have a different take on what they feel is an environmental threat caused by the seals themselves.
Here I feel obligated to note that I have been a recreational fisherman all my life-And that is more years than I want to reveal given I was born in 1946. That stated (I might be partisan)-let me explain the issue.
It’s as simple as this. Seals inhabit the bays and ocean. So do fish. Seals eat fish. The argument is “more they eat, the less for commercial or sport fisher folk”. Seals have been seen eating juvenile flounder and scuffing up mouthfuls of herring. I’ve seen this while out on my boat fishing a few times myself. I caught myself thinking “Oh tragedy of tragedies!” Then I decided to investigate the truth.
The inshore flounder fishery began to collapse at the end of the eighties. Prior to the down turn, they were caught in large numbers along our coast. March 17th, St. Paddy’s Day was the traditional opening day along the New England and Mid Atlantic Coasts. But could the fishery sustain decade after decade of guys going out and coming back with baskets of flounder just to enjoy a day out-every weekend while party boats had fares shoulder to shoulder on the rails all dipping their sinkers into the endless bounty. On the outside, draggers trawled and trawled and trawled! How long could it last? It couldn’t! And guess what? You couldn’t find nary a seal anywhere in those days. The herring runs were slipping also. Gone were the days when you could go down to the surf on a winters night with a lantern and boots to go “Frostbite” fishing by kicking the herring from the suds onto the beach. You could fill a bucket in no time flat. And yet at the time of the flounder and herring collapse there was hardly a seal in these waters to found. They had disappeared 90 years before.
In addition, during all those years seals were absent and fishing pressure was on, a graver dynamic was affecting the fish. The bays were getting sicker and the environment changing. The oxygen levels dropped particularly in the inner bays away from the steady flow of inlet water. Coastal cities and industries were pouring toxins and sewage into our waters and garbage scows were dumping cities’ garbage out at sea. I still remember being way off Long Island trolling and seeing barges with garbage falling off them being towed to the dumping grounds. Finally wizened environmental advocates, sport fishing groups, commercial fishermen and the government began to band together to improve all our surrounding waters.
Flounders are now slowly returning to some of their old haunts and more often being found in the deeper areas of the bays where the water does not hyper heat during the day. That redistribution of the biomass of flounders into deeper waters is being studied. Very tight catch limits have also had a positive affect.
Not to be overlooked are the return of masses of herring and other bait fish that are drawing whales, great whites and yes-seals! They’ll eat a few fish and maybe more but a healthy coastal water system and sustainable fishing can support both if we deal with the health of our coastal environs wisely.
Now lets go seal watching!!!!!!
There are many ways to enjoy seal watching. Check the Internet for places to view them on foot, on a seal watching cruise or comfort of your heated car. Bring the children and grand children and don’t forget your binoculars! Get them excited about their natural world. After all they are the future guardians of our water planet.
Here are a few suggestions. They are not endorsements.
Breezy Point, N.Y.
American Princess Seal watch cruises
Capt. Lou Seal watch cruises - 631-369-9840
Cresli Seal walks - 631-319-6003
Montauk Point, N.Y.
Seal walks at the state Park - 631-668-5000
New York Harbor and Raritan Bay, N.J.
Audubon winter bird and seal cruises.
Black Hawk II Seal cruises- - 860-448-3662
Croton Point, CT.
Project Oceanology seal cruises - 860-445-9007
In addition, you can hike to land viewing sites at Montauk Point, the coast of Staten Island, the fishing docks at Jones Beach, Sandy Hook and the shores of Raritan Bay, New Jersey. Actually you can find them almost anywhere the shore meets the water.
The following is a list of aquariums and zoos that have seal displays and many care for the health of sick wild seals nursing them back to health for release back into the wild. You can call or Google them on the internet for more details
New York City
New York City Zoo and Aquarium System including the Bronx, Queens, Central Park Zoos and the Brooklyn Coney Island Aquarium. Call 718-220-5100 for times, fees and directions.
Atlantis Aquarium- Riverhead - 631-208-9200
Mystic Aquarium - 860-572-5955
Adventure Aquarium- Camden/ Philadelphia
Turtle Back Zoo-Essex - 973-731-5800
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C. 2017 by Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved