CHATHAM, Mass. — At Chatham Harbor on Cape Cod, fishermen are unloading their trawlers with the catch of the day. The fishing pier is popular with tourists, but not just for ogling the grungy fishermen at work.
Gray seals pop their heads out of the water. They dip and dive and swim around the docked boats, waiting, like dogs around a dinner table, for fish to fall off.
“When I was a kid you’d be like, ‘Oh! There’s a seal.’ And it was cool to see one,” fisherman Sam Fuller says. “Now they’re like, everywhere.”
Fuller now sees them as a nuisance. He says they’ve learned to follow his boat like a chuck wagon, waiting for crew members to pull up a net.
“All the fish are in it,” Fuller says. “The seals just sit there and eat the fish out of the net as it’s coming up onto the boat.”
The seals’ sharp teeth also tear the nets. Fuller says those cost hundreds of dollars each to replace.
But federal law bars him and other fishermen from shooing the gray seals away, much less shooting them. Same goes for residents angry that their pricey beachfront property is now a favorite sunbathing spot for 300-pound pinnipeds. Chatham dock worker Ron Eppler thinks at least commercial fishermen should be able to do something.
“You know, if you own a ranch in Montana, and you’ve got a coyote problem, you’re allowed to protect your livestock,” Eppler says. “But these guys aren’t allowed to get near them because they’re cute.”
Actually, the seals are protected because they were almost wiped out.
Early New Englanders hunted seals for their furs, and to keep them from eating cod. Massachusetts paid bounties on seals, $5 per nose. But 40 years ago, the federal government outlawed killing and harassing seals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act helped gray seals and harbor seals recolonize New England waters. And they’re not only the ocean animal to return.
Last week a family boating off of Monomoy Island shot this home video of a great white shark devouring a seal carcass. Last month, a swimmer was mauled by a great white off of a beach in Truro.
“If you asked me in 2005: ‘Why don’t we know more about the great white shark?,’ I would have looked at you and said, ‘Because I can’t find it,’” says state shark biologist Greg Skomal.
Skomal says the predator is now back in Massachusetts waters, because the prey is back. And some people don’t mind at all.
In Chatham, Beachcomber Tours employee Dylan Preston says seal watching boats have been selling out this summer.
“This is the busiest it’s been,” Preston says. “I mean sometimes we’ll have seven to eight tours going out a day, which is pretty crazy. A good year, definitely.”
All those tourists are witnessing a marine ecosystem that’s still finding a renewed balance. Stephanie Wood, a biologist for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, says the seal population has tripled over the last dozen years, but eventually will level off.
“There’s only so much food and space,” Wood says. “But again, I don’t think we have any specific idea of when seals in Massachusetts are going to reach capacity.”
Back at the Chatham pier, fishing boat captain John Our is pessimistic about controlling the seals.
“It would take an act of Congress,” Our says. “And there’s not a congressman in his right mind that’s gonna be the first one out that says, ‘Let’s go harvest seals.’ ”
An aerial survey last year counted 15,000 of them in Massachusetts waters. To Our, it’s like he’s competing with 15,000 fishermen that don’t have limits.