Seals divide Chatham views; 6th found fatally shot

“There’s definitely a correlation between the number of seals and the quality of fish,’’ said Robert Scott of Whitehall, N.Y. “There’s definitely a correlation between the number of seals and the quality of fish,’’ said Robert Scott of Whitehall, N.Y. (Steve Haines for The Boston Globe)
By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / June 11, 2011

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CHATHAM — As a sixth gray seal was found shot to death on a Cape Cod beach yesterday, people in this picturesque seaside town debated whether the ubiquitous marine mammals are marvels of nature or just nuisances.

Once hunted nearly to extinction in New England waters, the seals are now “back with a vengeance,’’ as a brochure for Monomoy Island Excursions puts it.

So many of them bathe and feed off the coast here that a Main Street art gallery displays a painting of the seals in their front window, and a local boat cruise company promises to “connect people with nature’’ by providing a glimpse of the seals.

Their resurgence has been a boon to tourism and residents who say they enjoy seeing them on the beach.

But some fishermen are less fond of the animals. They say the seals are responsible for polluting the water and devouring the supply of fish.

On Chatham Light Beach, where a lighthouse overlooks a long stretch of sand, gray seals that had gathered in a massive clump on a sandbar yesterday afternoon became the main attraction. Tourists and residents with cameras and binoculars watched the animals eagerly.

Patricia Marcello, 50, who was visiting from the nearby town of Centerville with two friends from Florida, said she had never seen such a large group of seals in more than 30 years living on the Cape. “It adds something to your visit,’’ she said.

Her husband, Thomas, 56, was intently watching seals climb onto the sandbar. “Look at them all!’’ he said, pressing binoculars to his eyes. “It’s a very inhumane kind of thing to shoot them.’’

The attacks on gray seals appear to be the most serious on marine mammals in at least three decades in New England, officials say.

Animal welfare activists said yesterday that the sixth gray seal was found with a fatal gunshot wound on an undisclosed beach. No further information was immediately available, said Michael Booth, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The discovery came after five seals were found shot to death last month on Cape beaches from Dennis to Chatham over a two-week period.

Yet another dead seal was found yesterday on a beach in the town of Harwich, although the cause of death was still under investigation.

While no one condoned violence against the animals, the news has resurrected the difference of opinion about the seals in Chatham.

They were a pleasant surprise for Anthony and Holly Hamilton and their young children, visitors from Wisconsin. The Hamiltons had come to see the lighthouse. But their camera, complete with a long-range spotter scope, was pointed in the other direction — toward the seals.

As Anthony Hamilton held his 5-year-old daughter up to the spotter so she could see, Charlotte smiled widely. Before this week, he said, she had only ever seen a seal at the zoo.

The mood was different about a mile north, at the Chatham Fish Pier, where fishermen were busy unloading the day’s catch.

“They’re cute and everything, great for the tourists and all that, but what tourists don’t know is that the seals are taking food out of the mouths of the fishermen and putting it in their own,’’ said Rick Thompson, 53, who manages the dock.

Thompson described the gray seals as “like dogs,’’ willing to eat everything, not only the haddock, cod, dogfish, skate wing, and lobster the fishermen sell, but nearly anything else that moves in the water, including octopus.

Despite their big appetite, the seals only became numerous enough to affect the local fishing industry about nine years ago, he said.

But since the seals are protected, the fishermen have to live with them. Although authorities have not said who they believe is responsible for the seal killings, Thompson blamed the recent seal deaths on a “rogue fisherman’’ who might have taken matters into his own hands.

“It’s inhumane, but the seals are probably messing with somebody’s traps,’’ he said.

The seals may also be a draw for something other than tourists: great white sharks, which have been spotted off Cape beaches in the past few years. The sightings have forced Chatham’s harbormaster to close both South Beach and North Beach Island in recent summers, assistant harbormaster John Rendon said.

The fishermen’s point of view is well known around Chatham, where several residents and longtime visitors said they had mixed feelings about the seals. They might be a nuisance to the fishermen, but the seals are part of nature, too, they say.

“There’s definitely a correlation between the number of seals and the quality of fish,’’ said Robert Scott, 50, of Whitehall, N.Y., who said he has been fishing for pleasure on the Cape for 17 years. “I don’t even go out to South Beach anymore because of that.’’

Still, he added, “There’s plenty of fishing on the Cape. It’s hard to really blame it just on the seals.’’

Beth Daley of the Globe staff and correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report. Vivian Yee can be reached at