On Tuesday, March 23, 25 volunteer citizen scientists took to water and shore to observe 357 harbor seals at sites around Narragansett Bay in Save The Bay’s Bay-Wide Seal Count—an annual effort to establish a minimum estimate of the number of seals in the Bay.
Save The Bay today issued the following press release on the count;
With support from the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency staff, volunteers monitored 23 sites, with Rome Point in North Kingstown, Citing Rock in Newport and Halfway Rock in Portsmouth standing out as the most populated sites in the region, touting visible seal counts ranging from 41-69. On the same day, a partnering effort on Block Island, organized by Kimberly Gaffett of The Nature Conservancy, resulted in the spotting of 15 more seals along the island’s shores and engaged 23 additional volunteers.
“We had to cancel last year’s count, so it was great to see our citizen scientists reuniting last week,” noted Save The Bay Volunteer & Internship Manager July Lewis. “This initiative is a wonderful example of how volunteers can have a true impact on our work. The harbor seal is a top predator species and is important to Narragansett Bay’s ecology, so we want to understand this animal and track changes in its population. We couldn’t possibly monitor all the sites we do without support from these volunteers!”
The Bay-Wide Seal Count is part of Save The Bay’s citizen scientist monitoring program, which runs from September through May each year, when harbor seals typically visit local waters. The observed seal population is usually highest in March and April before the seals migrate to northern waters to have their young. While this year’s Bay-Wide Seal Count totals are lower than in previous years—the most recent being 572 seals counted in 2019—the numbers are unlikely to reflect a decrease in the seal population of the Bay. Instead, weather conditions—including fog that lowered visibility and rough waters that discouraged seals from hauling-out on rocks—affected the number of seals observed.
“We try to pick a day with ideal weather at the height of the seal season so we can count as many seals as possible,” explained Lewis. “We thought we were going to have terrific conditions, but the fog hung on much longer than predicted in the morning, and, although the winds were calm, the seas near the mouth of the Bay and around Block Island were very rough. Seals don’t like to haul out with waves splashing over their rocks!
“Our regular, seasonal monitoring still shows a healthy seal population. By doing both an annual one-day count and season-long monitoring at specific sites, we can get a good sense of what’s happening with the seal population. So far, in 2021, the population of seals appears stable.”
Since the launch of Save The Bay’s Bay-Wide Seal Count initiative in 2009, citizen scientists around Narragansett Bay collect data on visible, hauled-out seals to establish a minimum estimate of the local seal population.
“The stable seal population is largely a result of the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Chris Dodge, a Save The Bay captain and educator. The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the killing, taking or harassing of marine mammals, including seals. “The numbers tell us that humans have been doing the right thing, that the water is cleaner, that there is food to support these populations, and that the food webs seals rely on and which are formed around them are thriving.”
Seals hauled-out on rocks in Newport Harbor. Photo by Marie-Louise Strijbos.
While Rhode Island’s state marine mammal is delightful to watch, human observers sometimes inadvertently put stress on harbor seals, frightening them off their resting spots and causing them to lose precious energy. What may seem like a minor disturbance may be one of the many they experience throughout the day, and is, in fact, a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. When observing seals from land, you want to stay at least 50 yards away and be sure to leash and control your dog; when observing on the water, you’ll want to maintain a parallel course at least 50 yards away, which is less threatening to the seals than a direct approach—and, remember, canoes and kayaks have low profiles and are very quiet and can therefore be more threatening to seals than motorboats.
If you see harassment warning signs—such as seals stretching their necks and chests high into the air, starting to move toward or back into the water, looking at you or increasing their vocalization—back off immediately. These signs indicate that the seals are preparing to flee. If the seals do enter the water, leave the area immediately to avoid inflicting additional stress on the animals.
One way to observe seals in Narragansett Bay is from the deck of a Save The Bay vessel. Seal tours depart from Bowen’s Ferry Landing in Newport on Saturdays and Sundays through April 25, with daily tours taking place Monday-Thursday during Rhode Island’s April school vacation week, April 19-22. For more information about Save The Bay’s Seal Tours, visit savebay.org/seal.