Seal study aims to investigate the human element

Dec 23, 2019 | Plumbing the Depths

Seals, sharks and humans are the focus of a new study. Doreen Leggett photo.

By Doreen Leggett

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On any summer day there are tourists at the Chatham fish pier who love seeing “adorable” seals cavort around the fishing vessels. There are also fishermen who have lost part of their catch to those seals.

Both tourists and fishermen support protecting the ecosystem, but how they view that may differ. And those views may be wholly different from someone who enjoys surfing off Nauset, but is concerned about sharks.

A new study, bringing together varied collaborators, is designed to better understand those points of view and how they may translate into the policy and regulatory realm.

“We want to bring different perspectives together to see what people value about Cape Cod, see what they understand about the marine ecosystem and the interactions within it,” said George Maynard, research coordinator at the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, one of the collaborating organizations. “Seals are one piece in an increasingly complicated environment.”

Jennifer Jackman, a professor of political science at Salem State University, is leading the study, “Human Dimension of Rebounding Population of Seals and White Sharks on Cape Cod.” She is building off earlier work she and others have done on Nantucket. The study, funded by Woods Hole Sea Grant, also includes the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, University of Massachusetts-Boston, Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the Center for Animals and Public Policy of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Jackman has done several studies looking into attitudes on Cape Cod toward coyotes and noticed that there was little to no published research about attitudes toward seals.

That prompted Jackman to do a survey on Nantucket that looked at the perspectives of residents, tourists and recreational anglers.

Her research paper based on the results of the survey notes that after seals were virtually eliminated in the first half of the 20th century, protections from the Marine Mammal Protection Act have allowed them to return. As seal numbers increase, people feel differently about what that means.

“Controversy now exists over seal-fisheries interactions and continued federal protections for seals,” the introduction stated.

That research, done in 2016 and published last year, showed that across all three populations there was opposition to any lethal control, although the strength of that opposition varied. Tourists most opposed the idea, anglers least. It is also possible that in the three years since, attitudes have continued to shift.

She added that there were some clear areas of agreement between the groups surveyed.

“One was the shared commitment to managing to the benefit of the ecosystem,” Jackman said. “I think that was a significant take-home message.”

Ecosystem benefits mean different things to different people though. Take Fred Bennett, who has been making his living on the water for more than 60 years. He sees the exploding population of seals as a detriment to the ecosystem.

“Seals have certainly helped tourism with seal cruises and surveys. But perhaps when a species becomes over-abundant some kind of control should be available,” Bennett has said. “I am not saying there is no striped bass in Pleasant Bay, but seals have really driven them out. There are other things in the world besides seals. Give the other creatures a chance.”

That perspective, informed by years of experience is why it is important to include voices of commercial fishermen who make their living on the water..

Maynard works to make sure the views of commercial fishermen are included in a range of studies.

“It’s a focus for me, coming from academia, coming from a place I was not interacting with fishermen necessarily on a regular basis,” he said. In that setting “the people you are bouncing ideas off are other academics and scientists, so you develop blind spots. Fishermen will ask questions or make suggestions that are different than what another scientist might ask or suggest. Those different perspectives are valuable throughout the process, from conceptualizing the study design to conducting the research to interpreting results.”

Maynard also said it was important to realize that fishermen are often supporters of conservation, and that it’s possible to appreciate the environment while making a living in it.

Speaking to members of the collaborating groups, Jackman found interest in taking her initial research farther.

“This study is different from previous work conducted on Nantucket because it will incorporate Cape Cod residents and commercial fishermen as target demographics,” Maynard said. “It’s important to bring perspectives from both of these groups into the broader conversation about our changing marine environment.”

Perspectives brought by the partnering organizations are particularly helpful, Jackman agreed:

“Our goal is to help develop and inform discussion and strategies around coexistence and conflict mitigation.”

Data collection will occur between June and August, primarily through a randomized mail survey sent out to residents, as well as commercial fishermen. Tourists we will be identified and interviewed at Cape Cod National Seashore beaches.


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