Seals are swimming into Maine and Alaska, but marine mammal management says it’s no problem

It might seem strange to see a sealer truck up in Maine every other week, but that’s one of the jobs Sargent Murray Smith usually takes on when a seal problem is detected. Now, a scientist at the Maine Office of Marine Mammal Management is ready to ask him to help keep them out of Maine’s waters.

In a Friday statement, Smith said he has been unable to sleep since hearing that up to 7,000 wild Pacific harbor seals have been spotted swimming into the Gulf of Maine in recent weeks. “It’s worrisome to us and a little scary,” he said.

The seals, he said, are leaving the waters in Southern California, where officials started noticing them swim into nearby Chatham Harbor. They’re entering Maine after swimming up and down the coast of Canada and Central America.

Because they don’t nest or calve in Maine, it is not known exactly why the seals have come here, he said. They might just be looking for food — though no one has taken a huge feast yet.

But he said the state is taking steps to understand why they are here.

Of particular concern to Smith is the fact that while the seals are the youngest in the family, they are not terribly healthy compared to their sister or brother seals. They are larger than the average seal and often are more aggressive when pushed aside, he said.

“They appear to be young adults,” he said. “If this continues, we will be looking for a reason why they are in an ecological niche.”

He said the seals — which are known to cruise in and out of the Bay of Fundy each spring and fall as they search for food — can pose a threat to recreational fish and crab anglers. Those fish are a key part of the state’s economy. Smith said he is worried about the seals’ effect on oyster beds, which also rely on crabs and, in turn, on the seals.

Smith said his office has received calls from both fishermen and seals, with some fishermen upset about the seals’ presence.

He said he thinks it is “ironic” that the Bay of Fundy is seeing the largest concentration of seals in the upper 48 states and noted that the animals are sensitive to human interaction, often leaving disturbers messages. He said a message found taped to a sailboat on the bay said: “We’re going to get you! Be afraid, be very afraid!”

Then, of course, there is his own close calls.

In 2004, Smith said he answered a call for help from a whale trapped in a ship propeller. He said he got his own close call, too. When a seal that had swum right by him in the distance glanced the end of his lens, Smith said he was still conscious. “I thought: ‘What am I gonna do?’ “

This article was written by Stephen Hale, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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