Down East 2013 ©
Mainers are accustomed to seeing summer vacationers from Massachusetts and Rhode Island on the state’s beaches, but most of them are human. It turns out that the Down East coastline also attracts hordes of other out-of-state visitors, namely harbor seals, and there’s more of them this year than ever, according to a recently completed census.
Marine biologists working from an exhaustive series of aerial photographs determined that Maine hosts 99,340 harbor seals in the summer, a good many of them migrants from southern New England who visit only during the warmer months before swimming south for the winter. The census indicates that the species has recovered nicely from a low in the early 1970s of perhaps a few thousand. Maine and Massachusetts had bounties on harbor seals at one time, and even after the bounty ended fishermen routinely shot the mammals as threats to the herring and lobster fisheries.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 ended legal hunting, and the seal’s overall numbers have increased steadily in the years since, according to Gordon Waring, a research fisheries biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The first survey taken in 1981 counted only 11,000 of the animals, although it used a different methodology than the more comprehensive census taken last year. Waring also notes that the seals are also increasing their range. “In recent years we’ve seen them expanding south to as far as New Jersey in the winter,” he explains.
New England’s harbor seals also have another quirk — their habit of summering in Maine. “In other places, such as the West Coast, harbor seals pretty much stay in one place,” Waring adds. “Here, almost all of them are in Maine by the time the puffins arrive in May and June.”
At least they don’t come up the Maine Turnpike to get here.
(Published September 2002)