2017-03-30 / Nature

From Hunted to Put on a Pedestal

By Charles Avenengo


This Roberto Bessini seal sculpture at Perrotti Park has welcomed visitors to downtown Newport since 2000. The sculpture signifies a change in public awareness of the marine mammals, whose pelts were once offered as bounties. This Roberto Bessini seal sculpture at Perrotti Park has welcomed visitors to downtown Newport since 2000. The sculpture signifies a change in public awareness of the marine mammals, whose pelts were once offered as bounties. Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a law last July that established the harbor seal as the official state marine mammal. It is the first time any state has selected a seal for such a designation, and it marked an environmental consciousness regarding seals that has evolved dramatically over the past 50 years.

Until 1962, coastal communities in Maine and Massachusetts paid a $5 bounty to seal hunters for each pelt. One study revealed that 40,000 bounties were paid by those two states, a figure that didn’t include seals that escaped after being shot. The same study indicated that more than 135,000 seals may have been killed during the bounty hunt, as fishermen viewed seals as competition to their livelihood.

How things have changed. Today, the environmental organization, Save the Bay, conducts seal tours, with guides providing an educational view of the winter marine visitors. The tours cruise through historic Newport Harbor and take in 360-degree views of seals resting on Citing Rock off of Rose Island and the Newport Bridge.

While Rhode Island didn’t offer a bounty years ago, such bounties were paid in Bristol County, Mass., which shares the length of the eastern border of Rhode Island. Nevertheless, seal sightings in the Ocean State were scarce during that time. According to “The Mammals of Rhode Island” by John Cronan and Albert Brooks, there were only six seal sightings in the state between 1957 and 1968.

Then came the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which provided the seals with federal protection. By the mid-1980s, their numbers had increased to at least two wintering congregations, called haul-outs. One was just north of Lone Tree Point in North Kingstown, and the other was, appropriately, on Seal Rock, one half-mile south of Ocean Drive.

As seals increased in numbers, a cottage industry sprang to life to observe the marine mammals. In 1997, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation was taking passengers to view them on the rocks just northeast of the island. Not long after, Oldport Marine, spearheaded by the late Ron Ackman, followed suit. By 2002, Save the Bay and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island were also offering tours.

This ecotourism thrived for more than a decade, with nearly 100 tours carrying 1,000 passengers on an annual basis. And while Rose Island and Oldport Marine no longer offer tours, Save the Bay has expanded its operations to include cruises from Fall River and Westerly. The Audubon Society also offers a limited number of land-based opportunities to see the seals at Rome Point, North Kingstown, and Prudence Island.

Meanwhile, Save the Bay has been active on another front with seal monitoring. Since 1994, the environmental outfit has conducted point counts. Every year on a designated day, volunteer observers count seals at 20 haul-outs throughout Rhode Island. The 2016 count produced 603 seals, the highest to date.

While all this activity has been focused primarily on harbor seals, other species of seals began to make their presence known beginning around 2000. Most notable among them was the harp seal, which was recorded in Rhode Island for the first time in 300 years.

Harp seals were the cornerstone of the environmental activism movement that evolved in the 1970s. When born in the icy realm of the Canadian Maritimes, harp seals have a pure white coat, which was harvested for furs to be used in the fashion industry. Enter the birth of Greenpeace and a seal-hunting moratorium. As a result, harp seal numbers increased from an estimated 1 to 6 million.

With the population explosion, displaced immature harp seals began working their way south into local waters. Unlike the more familiar harbor seals that are found on rocky ledges and outcroppings, the immature harp seals are usually found on sandy beaches. Researchers surmise that from a harp seal’s perspective, beaches are attractive resting sites because they resemble their natal ice.

Two more species, gray seals and hooded seals, likewise arrived at the turn of the century. Gray seals are enormous, with males weighing up to 800 pounds. While their numbers in Rhode Island remain low, gray seals have become a fixture at South Monomoy Island off of Chatham, Cape Cod, generating enormous publicity, as the seals are a food source for the sinister, great white shark. Despite that, a 2016 aerial survey indicated the presence of a staggering 25,000 gray seals.

So, like the Phoenix who rises from the ashes, so have the seals.

Newport Seal Watch Cruises

For more than 15 years, Save the Bay seal tours and nature cruises have been proof that summer isn’t the only time to enjoy the bay. Through the end of April, seal tours and nature cruises are being offered out of Newport. Guides provide an educational view of the winter marine visitors. Save the Bay education vessels motor through historic Newport Harbor and take in 360-degree views of seals resting on Citing Rock off of Rose Island and the Newport Bridge. One-hour seal tours are boat-based, while two-hour tours include a tour of Rose Island Lighthouse.

For the schedule and more information, visit savethebay.org

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