- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

NORWALK, Conn. (AP) — It’s a sight New Englanders aren’t entirely used to seeing: thousands of seals swimming through Long Island Sound or hauling out to Maine, where they like to have their pups.

Seals traditionally have migrated into southern New England waters in the winter. But as their numbers have grown after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, an increasing number of seals crowded out of Maine and Massachusetts waters have been looking to make southern New England their permanent homes.

As many as 100,000 harbor seals can be found in New England waters, and yet what is known about these mammals is very little. Regional experts recently met at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk to develop a research plan to explore where exactly the seals are coming from, what food they’re eating and what kind of impact the expanding population may have on commercial fisheries.

“My personal sense is you’ve got a lot to learn from the abundant species. It’s important to look at Mother Nature’s success stories,” said Greg Early, a contract biologist based in New Bedford, Mass.

Before the protection act, seals were a dying breed that were once hunted by fishermen who regarded them as competition. In 1973, only 5,800 seals were counted in Maine, a number that probably reflects the entire New England population at the time, said Amy Ferland, a harbor seal census researcher for the Maritime Aquarium.

“They were almost completely wiped out,” Miss Ferland said.

It became illegal to hunt or harass seals and the population has since recovered, with female seals bearing one pup each year, Miss Ferland said.

In addition to the harbor seals, there are between 5,000 and 7,000 gray seals that usually haul out in the winter to Muskeget Island, located between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, to have their pups.

There are also a number of harp and hooded seals that researchers believe are breeding in Canadian waters and only coming down to New England during certain times of the year, said Gordon Waring, a research fisheries biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Mr. Waring said researchers are interested in exploring any genetic links between harbor seals that are mating in U.S. waters and those that are breeding in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Marine research is expensive. Mr. Waring estimates that a complete abundance survey for New England could cost as much as $300,000. The count, which includes the use of two airplanes and radio tagging, is completed over three or five years.

To collect diet information, scientists would need an additional $100,000 to look at seal droppings or to examine the stomachs of stranded, dead seals. A research plan for the group is still in the early stages, but scientists hope to eventually secure a federal grant for funding.

Maritime Aquarium officials received a handful of calls from residents last winter saying they had a seal on their property.

Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration counted 51 seal strandings along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts last year, an increase of 15 from 2002. In particular, there has been quite a jump in the number of harbor and gray seals.

In southern Maine, there were between 400 and 450 seal strandings reported in 2004, Mr. Early said, double the number of 2003.

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