Would killing seals protect humans from sharks?

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What's happening:

In the 1975 film classic “Jaws,” a massive great white shark causes panic in a fictional New England beach town. Today, real-life coastal residents on Cape Cod are dealing with a similar, if less cinematic, problem.

Great white sightings have become increasingly common. Last September, a 26-year-old man died after being bitten while boogie boarding. It was the first fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936. A month earlier, a 61-year-old swimmer was attacked and narrowly survived.

Many are placing blame for the attacks not on the sharks themselves, but on the seals that draw them close to shore. Gray seal populations in New England were nearly eliminated by hunting through most of the 20th century, but federal protections passed in 1972 have allowed their numbers to proliferate. Today there are an estimated 50,000 seals around Cape Cod.

One proposed solution is killing seals to control their population. The practice, known as culling, is a relatively common tactic that has been used to manage species like birds, rodents and even kangaroos.

Why there's debate:

Proponents of seal culling say it is the most effective and efficient way to reduce the number of sharks in Cape Cod’s waters. Businesses that rely on tourism are suffering because the attacks are scaring off summer visitors, they argue. Others say the seals have become so numerous that they're creating problems beyond just attracting sharks, such as stealing fish from fishermen and creating an unpleasant odor on beaches.

Environmentalists argue that killing thousands of seals to protect humans is cruel, given how rare fatal shark attacks are. Some scientists believe a cull would be ineffective because any seals killed on Cape Cod would soon be replaced by seals from another area.

Still others say the debate on the issue is pointless, since federal law prohibits killing the seals.

What’s next:

No seal cull could legally occur with federal laws protecting marine mammals currently in place. A bill that would have amended the law was proposed by Republican lawmakers in 2017, but it failed to pass in the House of Representatives.


Culling seals would be an ineffective overreaction.

“Does the general public have the stomach to remove tens of thousands of seals? It’s a knee-jerk reaction, in my opinion, that is not likely to work.” — Shark expert Gregory Skomal to the New York Times

The protected seal population has grown far bigger than expected.

“Now fully recovered, the seal population has grown beyond what any reasonable person would consider healthy.” George Beatty, Cape Cod Today

Seals cause problems beyond attracting sharks.

“Commercial and recreational fishers blame the growing number of seals in recent decades for already decimating a once-thriving fishing industry. Now, they say, the seals have brought unwanted sharks to beaches.” — Joey Garrison, USA Today

It would be difficult to kill enough seals to impact population numbers.

“I think there’s a sometimes-naive notion that this is a discrete population that we have some ability to control. If I kill all the squirrels on my bird feeder this week, within a fairly short period of time, there will be other squirrels because I have an attractive resource for them.” — Humane Society ecologist Sharon Young to WBUR

The law protecting the seals is flawed.

“The act does not address the eventuality that a marine mammal species may recover to a sustainable population level, or even to a level that threatens the safety of our beaches, the recovery of our declining fisheries, the balance of our marine ecosystem, and the welfare of the coastal communities that depend on those beaches and waters for their economic well-being.” — Peter Howell, Boston Globe

It’s possible to lower the number of seals without killing them.

“Mammalian birth control treatments are available. … The adoption of this seal control option would be much more acceptable to most people than culling the seal herd although it will take some time to be effective.” — George Buckley, Wicked Local Cape Cod

A cull can’t happen under current law.

“So, is any kind of cull in the works? In a word, no. As marine mammals, gray seals are protected by the federal government. And federal and state regulations make it illegal to possess, sell, or purchase great white sharks or their parts.” — Jason Bittel, Natural Resources Defense Council

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images