Once a harbinger of the next age, the Maine sea seal is now vanishing

Written by Staff Writer

Clementine Goyette is CNN London Bureau Chief

Ten years ago, it was already clear that something was wrong. The numbers were alarming. How many more hundred, or thousand — 20 times that — had it become to list the vital signs of the state seal. Some were fast, most were slow; all were declining.

It was obvious that something was wrong: the decline of all that vibrant hale and hearty, man-grove state that used to flood the tranquil waters of the Maine Sound. And all but unharmed by storms or currents, with the dramatic exception of the familiar boat, and fisherman: fishermen who put their lives at risk to take their essential role in sustaining the state’s economy, sea life and — above all — open waters.

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But there was more to it than that. The seals were catching all the fish, and catching them at short intervals, with vastly increasing numbers of shark and seals.

This, explained Clementine, was not just the continuing health of their long-term population; it was the short duration of those human beings, enticed in by the rich catch and lobster pots. Until their early 20s, they had been moving from place to place, attaching themselves to the magnificent deep sea.

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And then they would go home, and not return for five years or more.

That is their story. Now you may think: ten years ago, Clementine, at this time of our present political, economic and ecological state — what could be the difference that one seal could make?

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Well. The Maine saltwater seal, she explains, is now a critically endangered species.

That’s the case now, in one year for the first time in the seal’s 142,000-year long history. It is a staggering statistic. There are fewer left.

In Maine alone there are enough seals to cover two and a half New York blocks and that makes them vulnerable to poaching; to commercial and recreational use; and to the very energetic predators who would eat them up (cetaceans, a species that includes whales and dolphins, which saw more than 1,000 deaths in the Pacific last year).

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Over-harvesting a critical resource

Though its economic importance can’t be underestimated, Maine’s Sea Coast is also an important fishing region. It has large populations of cod and monkfish, as well as — in certain places — seals.

Here in Maine alone, marine mammals are a key part of the lobster harvest; at a huge natural concentration in our waters, rookeries move around like giant prisons. The state seal in particular has an important role. Migrating from one place to another, it feeds upon invertebrates to establish or maintain populations. And, when it is close to feeding or mating season, the seal is a leading indicator of certain health attributes of the overall population of seals.

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Given the use of scientific methods to assess these traits, it would appear that there’s a vital role for seals as an ecological presence in Maine’s sea waters. Their decline can be deemed a consequence of overexploitation of all sentient creatures, including seals, as an agricultural crop. I’m not a marine biologist by nature — not even a proficient skipper. But I have a certain facility with numbers.

We have stated repeatedly: that the long-term future of Maine’s Sea Coast cannot be foreseeable in the current state of the economy. A single person, though not insignificant, has not been the key to the story. The state seal is.

A need for leadership

As one sea mammal researcher says: the seal are state-protected. That is what the seal has always been about, what defines it. All other portents except now are economic — too often the very wrong portents, of course. With an uncertain future ahead, and shifting economic currents, coastal Maine needs more courage and character and leadership. The state seal is not the only animal on this planet suffering. It’s not the state seal’s job to save others.

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But it’s our job to keep the seal alive. We need to stop trawling for the crustaceans. We need to clean out all lobster pot landings, regardless of legality. We need to stop lobster pots jamming up this deceptively picturesque coastline and stop turning our back on all kinds of other important services for the human who depend on the seal for survival.

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