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Nantucket seals not too proud to beg

Animals taking food from tourists and fishermen

Grey seals are normally reclusive but those at Great Point have became conditioned to anticipate free meals and quickly went beyond barking at boats for handouts. Grey seals are normally reclusive but those at Great Point have became conditioned to anticipate free meals and quickly went beyond barking at boats for handouts. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF/File 2000)

On Nantucket this summer, a stop at Great Point to feed grey seals has become a routine for many charter fishing boat captains, giving customers an up-close look at mammals that had once been hunted to the brink of extinction.

Like Pavlov's dogs, the normally reclusive seals quickly became conditioned to anticipate free meals and quickly went beyond barking at boats for handouts. The animals discovered that surf fishermen casting from the shore could be another food source and began snatching fish off their hooks before the catch could be reeled in.

"Someone had the idea of giving a seal a bluefish," said Sergeant Dean Belanger, the lone state Environmental Police officer stationed on Nantucket. "Then it just spread like wildfire. Essentially a lot of people didn't know that what they were doing was illegal."

No one has been charged with a crime, but officials worry that the animals are losing their natural fear of humans.

"We have gotten to the point where our environmental laws have paid off," said Belinda Rubinstein, the seal biologist at the New England Aquarium. "What we now have to do it teach people how to interact with them."

Under the marine mammal protection act of 1972, feeding seals is considered harassment and is punishable by up to a $10,000 fine.

ANDREW RYAN

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