In1973, it was estimated that there were only 30 gray seals living on the coast of Maine. Now, estimates put the number in the thousands.
Hunted To The Brink
As a whole, gray seals aren't an endangered species, but those living on the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts were nearly wiped out by hunters and fishermen. For roughly 100 years, the government of Maine and Massachusetts had bounties on gray seals because of their impact on the fishing community. The animals were also hunted for their meat and pelts. The Marine Mammal Protection Act provided the creatures with some legal protections, but the population was decimated by the previous century.
Gray Seals Make A Comeback
In recent decades, gray seals from Canada began migrating into New England. Scientists have noticed an increase in the overall population, but traditional surveys made it difficult to estimate how many of the creatures were there. Counting seals while on the beach is difficult, expensive, and inaccurate since it misses the seals in the water. A recent study used Google Earth and tagged seals to more accurately estimate the current seal population in New England.
Duke University's David W. Johnston said that past studies have pegged the seal population at about 15,000, but his estimates are much higher with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 50,000.
Johnston's study combined high-resolution imagery from Google Earth with more than 8,000 hours of data obtained from tagged seals. This technique allowed his team to get much more accurate information regarding New England's seal population.
According to Johnston, the success of New England's seal population should provide hope to similar conservation efforts since it proves that that species can recover if given enough time.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the aforementioned recovery. Many members of New England's fishing community see the seals as a threat to their livelihood and have called for a lifting of the hunting restrictions. Johnston says that such actions are misguided, noting the lack of data regarding what gray seals eat and how they interact with fisheries. It is possible that culling the seal population would do little, if anything, in regard to protecting fish. Furthermore, such actions would be illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which helped New England's seal population recover in the first place.
"There is very little evidence that culling seals will increase fishery yields or provide positive effects on the local ecosystem," says Johnston.