With fewer fish and more regulations, you'd think it couldn't get much tougher for fishermen. But now they're also facing growing competition- not from other fishermen- but from federally protected seals.

All this week WGBH News is putting a focus on the tradeoffs in our waters, in our series made in partnership with WCAI on Cape Cod: The Long Haul: The Future of New England's Fisheries.

Seals are big business these days on Cape Cod. Tour boats shuttle visitors to watch as the seals sun themselves on Monomoy Island south of Chatham. At the Chatham Fish Pier, they bob their heads out of the water with an almost human-like quality, playfully swim here and there as fishermen unload their catch.

But the cuteness factor is lost on local fishermen like Nick Muto. He said he now has to compete with seals for fish, and it’s the seals who have a clear advantage.

"Fishermen feel we’re being blamed for a lot of the decline of the codfish population," he said. "But in essence, in just the Cape Cod area alone, there’s 14,000 unregulated fishermen - being, the seal population."  

Muto’s statistic may actually be a bit low. Current estimates place the number of seals around Cape Cod at more than 15,000 - almost triple the number from 1999. They gravitate to places like Monomoy because it’s isolated, and ideally suited to raising pups. The seals are here in big numbers. They’re here to stay. And these wily predators have gotten very good at competing with local fishermen for dwindling numbers of fish.

A Bane to Fishermen

Muto said they’re eating the fish right out of the nets. "I’ve worked in some of the fish weirs in Nantucket Sound, and they will eat every single fish that we catch. And those guys, in years, really haven’t made any money. To see what little fish were in there, have it eaten by seals, I mean, it’s so frustrating."

Muto has been a commercial fisherman for 11 years. He tends his 700 lobster pots during the summer, and in the winter, he works on the crew of the Lori B out of Chatham, fishing for skate and monkfish. He said he’s amazed at how intelligent and resourceful the seals can be.  

"I’ve watched them climb up and over twine that’s up, six, eight feet out of the water. They’ll pull themselves up and over, and get in, or rip holes in the twine to get out of it. And then, when we pull up here into the harbor, I feel they’re attracted by the sound of the diesel engines. To them, a diesel engine means there might be some food that gets washed over."  

Rebounding From Near Extinction

Up until the 1960s, grey seals were hunted to the point where they almost disappeared completely from the area. Then, in 1972, they became a Federally-protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since then, local seal populations have exploded.

"I think some of the fishermen wish we could be protected the same way the seals are being protected, to make sure we could stay out there forever," Muto said, only half kidding. "But it seems that the focus is to make sure that the seals are alright. And if the fishermen go by the wayside, well, it’s collateral damage, you know?”

Seals Under Study

At a Chatham seal symposium last March, biologist Greg Early said the Marine Mammal Protection Act is more broadly-based than most people realize. Simply put: it’s not just about the seals.

Early said data collection about seal populations has gotten better in recent years. But what fishermen really want to know is, 'What’s the plan for dealing with all this new information?'

Mike Simpkins is Branch Chief of the Protected Species Branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole. His agency is charged with generating the science on seals, and passing that information along to regulators.  

Simpkins said fishermen only see part of the story.  

"They’re out on the water a lot, they’re on boats, and so they see certain things that we won’t see because we’re not out on the water all the time," he notes. "But we’re also, you know, when we’re flying surveys or we’re collecting diet samples or when we’re tagging animals or tracking them, that’s information that they don’t have."  

Seals spend 80 to 90 percent of their lives under water. Simpkins says that’s why it’s it so hard to collect concrete data on their behavior.  

Last month, Simkins’ agency spearheaded a major grey seal tagging effort in Chatham. The goal is to get a better handle on where and how far grey seals travel when they’re not on land - and what they’re up to. 

"This is a first step to start getting that information and get a sense for what they’re doing,"  he said. "Maybe they’ll all do the same thing. Maybe they’ll all go in different directions. But whatever we get will help us get a better sense for putting some bounds on what may be really happening out there in the water, which is the part that’s really hard to work in."

Those conversations are underway. One example is the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium, a research partnership involving both fishermen and marine scientists.

But no matter how well all the stakeholders work together, how accurate the stock assessments are, and what solutions are proposed, the Marine Mammal Protection Act remains the law of the land. And changing that would require an act of Congress. It may come to that. Until then, fishermen will try and adapt their methods to better meet the challenges of their cunning underwater competitors.