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We manage deer populations. Why not gray seals?

13 December 2020
Seal harvest

OPINION / MY VIEW: We manage deer populations. Why not gray seals?

Cape Cod Times repost

By Peter Howell

The Trustees of Reservations has recently conducted a controlled deer hunt on their World’s End property in Hingham to reduce the deer population. The Trustees’ website says they “consider hunting part of a program of best management practices for maintaining healthy deer populations” and that “given the ecological, scenic and recreational significance of World’s End, The Trustees goal is to maintain target densities … through an annual controlled hunt.”

I have no reason to question the trustees’ decision to reduce the deer population on ecological grounds, but another of the trustees’ properties — the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on Nantucket — has seen a dramatic growth in the gray seal population. For generations, Great Point, at the northern tip of Coskata-Coatue, has attracted visitors from far and wide to its spectacular beach and superlative fishing. Now it is effectively a seal refuge owing to the ever-increasing presence of gray seals.

Why is it okay to control the deer population on ecological grounds, but not the gray seal population? Because the Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed almost 50 years ago, protects marine mammals in perpetuity, regardless of their numbers and impact on the environment. Why is it OK to control terrestrial mammal populations but not marine mammals, in particular those whose populations have demonstrably recovered, such as gray seals?

In recent years the federal government has announced the delisting, under the Endangered Species Act, of grizzly bears, wolverines and gray wolves. The combined lower 48 populations of all three of those species is estimated at less than 9,000 animals, yet there are an estimated 500,000 gray seals in the northwestern Atlantic, which freely migrate between Canadian and U.S. waters, and when they are in U.S. waters, they are legally protected. Why does the Endangered Species Act permit delisting of recovered species, but not the Marine Mammal Protection Act?

Muskeget Island, just west of Nantucket, is the largest gray seal breeding site in the U.S. Starting this month, over 10,000 gray seals will overwhelm and threaten the fragile ecosystem of this 250 acre island, which is a National Natural Landmark and home to a unique species of beach vole, the Microtus breweri. Beyond Muskeget, the ever-expanding gray seal population threatens the balance of our marine ecosystem, not to mention the safety of our inshore waters owing to the great white sharks they attract. If controlled deer hunts can be justified at World’s End in the interests of preserving a balanced ecosystem, why shouldn’t the Marine Mammal Protection Act permit a similar determination in the case of gray seals with the same objective of preserving a balanced marine ecosystem?

I do not question or criticize the trustees’ wildlife management policies, nor do I question the need for the Marine Mammal Protection Act, per se. I do question the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s protection of species that have demonstrably recovered, potentially beyond their optimum sustainable numbers, and with potentially damaging ecological impact. The Endangered Species Act provides for delisting of species that have recovered. So should the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Peter Howell is a resident of Hingham and a former resident of Nantucket. He served as chairman of the Nantucket Property Committee of The Trustees of Reservations from 2010 to 2014.

Source: Peter Howell, Cape Cod Times. “OPINION / MY VIEW: We manage deer populations. Why not gray seals?”. December 13th 2020. <>

Video of gray seal colony in Brion Island in the Magdalen Islands in Quebec available on Intra-Quebec Sealers Association’s website: