The Consequences Of Meddling With Mother Nature

The Marine Mammal Protection Act was signed into law in 1972 and amended in 1994.

The act:

…protects all marine mammals, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), sea otters, and polar bears within the waters of the United States.

The Act makes it illegal to “take” marine mammals without a permit. This means people may not harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal or part of a marine mammal. The Act also formalized the marine mammal health and stranding response program to improve the response of stranding and unusual mortality events. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration web site gives the complete text of the Act.

So what are the consequences of this act? FoxNews in Boston posted an article today about some of the results of the act.

The article reports:

Great white sharks are discovering what tourists have known for years: Cape Cod is a great place to spend the summer.

…The white shark population is probably significantly larger, because the scientists can’t possibly spot all of them, Skomal (Greg Skomal, a senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and the state’s top shark expert) said.

Two of the more interesting findings are the increasing number of young sharks, and that they appear to be swimming farther afield.

“Last summer we saw greater numbers of smaller sharks, including juveniles, and that tells us that the population is rebuilding,” Skomal said.

Great whites, made famous in the 1975 movie “Jaws,” about a monstrous shark that terrorizes a fictional New England resort town, are coming to Cape Cod waters to feast on seals. Once hunted to near extinction, the now-protected seals are found in great numbers.

The seals used to be concentrated at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, off limits to humans, but as they have moved farther north, so have the sharks, Skomal said.

In 2013, WGBH reported that the increased seal population was impacting the fishermen in the area.

WGBH reported:

But the cuteness factor is lost on local fishermen like Nick Muto. He said he now has to compete with seals for fish, and it’s the seals who have a clear advantage.

“Fishermen feel we’re being blamed for a lot of the decline of the codfish population,” he said. “But in essence, in just the Cape Cod area alone, there’s 14,000 unregulated fishermen – being, the seal population.”  

Muto’s statistic may actually be a bit low. Current estimates place the number of seals around Cape Cod at more than 15,000 – almost triple the number from 1999. They gravitate to places like Monomoy because it’s isolated, and ideally suited to raising pups. The seals are here in big numbers. They’re here to stay. And these wily predators have gotten very good at competing with local fishermen for dwindling numbers of fish.

It’s obvious that the Marine Mammal Protection Act has had some unintended consequences. I am not a scientist and do not claim to have the answer to the negative impact protecting the seals has had on the fishermen and the impact the law has had on the shark population off Cape Cod. However, I think the law has to be reevaluated and the idea of limited killing of the seals explored. Otherwise, the beautiful beaches of Cape Cod will eventually become a safe habitat for great white sharks and an unsafe habitat for swimmers.