CHATHAM, Mass. — Ted Ligenza, a fisherman here for nearly 40 years, was intrigued when he first started seeing gray seals bobbing in the harbor for the very first time about three decades ago. "We thought they were kind of pretty looking," he said.
He did not know then that the sweet-faced creatures would eventually become a Cape Cod ubiquity like the harbor-side clam shack, mountainous hydrangea and sightings of Kennedys. These days, they emerge by the thousands on sandbars or pop up in small groups along the shoreline. They delight visitors who watch their heads bob above the waves. But they invade fishermen's nets, draw sharks closer to the shore and are rankling those who make their living by the sea so much that some are calling for blood.
"I guarantee those seals have caught a hell of a lot more cod than the port of Chatham has," said John Our, a fisherman who, like others, thinks it is time to consider controlling the population. "Think about it — we cull everything else," he said. "You have harvests of deer, farmers get to kill the locusts."
The return of the gray seals to Cape Cod is a dramatic success story for animal protection. Before the early 1980s, gray seals were mostly absent from North American waters, their numbers low in part because of the bounties in Massachusetts and Maine that researchers estimate killed up to 135,000 before the last was lifted in 1962. Ten years later, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act outlawed seal hunting. With new protections also in place in Canada, the gray seal population slowly began to grow and thrive in Maine and on Cape Cod's sandbars and long stretches of protected beach, where they face few predators.
A survey in 1994 spotted 2,035 seals in Cape Cod waters. In 2011, surveyors counted more than 15,700, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Some scientists suggest the number of gray seals in United States waters may now be at its highest point in history.
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