Outcry over the killing of thousands of seals off the Atlantic coast this year was made public Monday and is sparking calls from scientists for comprehensive protection, a pan-continental ban and a mechanism to stop the commercial kill when the seals are not in danger.
Despite attempts to reduce their numbers, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed Monday that seals in every state were being killed this year, down about 40 percent from 2017. The number of deaths has sent a wave of concern to scientists from Maine, where about 40 percent of all seals are found in coastal waters.
It’s Maine’s job to handle such calls, said Kevin Smith, Maine director of the Marine Mammal Protection Society, and the agency is doing its job.
“However, there are no laws that say when and how we have to respond,” Smith said. “There’s no way of really knowing what resources are needed. The classic scenario is, you have 30 thousand seals washing up at the bottom of the bay and you know it’s 25 to 30 days from the last sighting or beached but you don’t know when it will happen again.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Atlantic coast states and the federal government’s National Marine Fisheries Service failed to work together and imposed a season that never ended, to severely cut back the number of seals. The number of seals just reached a low point in October.
Maine has regulations in place to protect them, which require all seals be relocated from sensitive areas and of the worst condition to shelters, or keeping them colder and feeding them. But research indicates that seal pups in far-off areas, such as Alaska, can grow to be tens of tons and large enough to weigh an adult and be a threat to ships. New York and Virginia have reported just three known sightings of sea lion pups in the past five years, but said they are required to kill an estimated 500 seals each year to protect mammals like sea otters.
“We do what we can when they are threatened,” Smith said. “But given the record numbers this year, we’re definitely going to want to work with the feds to think out a plan to prevent the deaths and take them in a systematic way so we don’t have to keep having this conversation year after year.”
The agency has guidelines for when to release seals but they are not binding, according to NOAA.
The April-July seal season was ended before sea turtles stranded en masse on the Northeast coast. A report also by the Center for Biological Diversity says that based on the number of calls from around the country, Maine and Massachusetts were the top two states that reported sea lions were all killed. New York was fourth and New Jersey fifth.
“But the problem is going on all year in Maine, where the seals of the Bering Sea migrate to the Bay of Fundy to breed,” said Meredith Hackett, a marine ecologist with the museum. “They’re dying of starvation or are killed by humans because it’s a commercial hunt. When we find a seal that’s tangled in fishing lines and entangled in pollution, we try to save them but unfortunately a lot don’t.”