NORWALK, Conn. — It's a sight that New Englanders aren't entirely used to seeing: thousands of seals swimming through the Long Island Sound or hauling out to Maine, where they like to have their pups.
Seals traditionally have migrated into southern New England waters in the winter. But as their numbers have grown after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, an increasing number of seals crowded out of Maine and Massachusetts waters have been looking to make southern New England their permanent homes.
As many as 100,000 harbor seals can be found in New England waters, and yet little is known about these mammals. Regional experts recently met at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk to develop a research plan to explore where exactly the seals are coming from, what food they're eating and what effect the expanding population may have on commercial fisheries.
"My personal sense is you've got a lot to learn from the abundant species. It's important to look at Mother Nature's success stories," said Greg Early, a contract biologist based in New Bedford, Mass.
Before the protection act, seals were a dying breed hunted by fishermen who regarded them as their competition.
In 1973, 5,800 seals were counted in Maine, a number that probably reflected the entire New England population at the time, said Amy Ferland, a harbor seal census researcher for the Maritime Aquarium.
"They were almost completely wiped out," Ferland said.
It became illegal to hunt or harass seals under the protection law, and the population has since recovered, with female seals bearing one pup each year, Ferland said.
In addition to the harbor seals, there are between 5,000 and 7,000 gray seals that usually haul out in the winter to Muskeget Island, between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, to have their pups.
There are also a number of harp and hooded seals that researchers believe are breeding in Canadian waters and only come down to New England during certain times of the year, said Gordon Waring, a research fisheries biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Waring said researchers were interested in exploring any genetic links between harbor seals that were mating in U.S. waters and those breeding in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Funding for marine research is expensive; Waring estimates that a complete abundance survey for New England could cost as much as $300,000. The count, which includes the use of two airplanes and radio tagging, is completed over three or five years.
To collect diet information, scientists would need an additional $100,000 to look at seal droppings or examine the stomachs of dead seals. A research plan for the group is still in the early stages, but scientists hope to eventually secure a federal grant for funding.
Commercial fishermen in Connecticut who have watched their winter flounder population decline in recent years say the research is necessary to their livelihood. Winter flounder is the most sought-after fish by recreational and commercial fishermen, said Eric Smith, acting director of the state's Department of Environmental Protection's marine fisheries division.
"If the research comes to show that we're never going to get a strong winter flounder stock because seals are knocking the population down to very low levels, then that would be nice to know. I wouldn't like the idea of it, but at least I would have something to say to these fishermen," Smith said.
Any talk of implementing a controlled harvest on the seals to keep the growing population in check would be met with such strong resistance that it's almost entirely unlikely, Smith said.
"It would take an act of God and probably a bit more for me to think that this country would go back to harvesting mammals," Smith said.
Researchers say the high seal population is bound to have an effect on humans. Boaters and kayakers may be unknowingly breaking buffer zones set in place by the protection act, and some seals are actually hauling out onto privately owned waterfront properties.
Maritime Aquarium officials received a handful of calls from residents last winter saying they had a seal on their property.
Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration has counted 51 seal strandings along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts this year, an increase of 15 from 2002. In particular, there has been quite a jump in the number of harbor and gray seals.
In southern Maine, there have been between 400 and 450 seal strandings reported since January, Early said. That number has doubled since last year.
"The short take-home message to people is that seals are a big part of our sea life now," he said.