By Save The Bay
On Tuesday, March 15, 17 volunteer citizen scientists took to water and shore to continue a 13-year Save The Bay tradition: counting seals in the nonprofit organization’s annual Bay-Wide Seal Count, an effort to establish a minimum estimate of the number of seals in Narragansett Bay. With support from the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency staff, volunteers counted 464 seals at 25 sites, with Citing Rock in Newport, Rome Point in North Kingstown, and Halfway Rock in Newport County standing out as the most populated sites in the region, touting visible seal counts ranging from 53-79. On the same day, a partnering effort on Block Island, organized by Kim Gaffett of The Nature Conservancy, resulted in the spotting of 106 more seals along the island’s shores and engaged 25 additional volunteers.
“This initiative is a wonderful example of how volunteers can have a true impact on our work,” noted Save The Bay Volunteer and Internship Manager July Lewis. “The harbor seal—the most commonly-found seal in Narragansett Bay—plays an important role in the Bay’s ecology as a top predator species. We want to better understand this animal and track changes in its population, but we couldn’t possibly monitor all the sites we do without support from our citizen scientists!”
“Our volunteers covered nearly the entire perimeter of Block Island, including Old Harbor and most of the Great Salt Pond shoreline,” said Kim Gaffett, The Nature Conservancy’s Block Island naturalist. “While most of the numbers come from four locations, we’re excited to have been able to continue tracking the populations of both grey and harbor seals around the island.”
“Partnering with Save The Bay for the Bay-Wide Seal Count is one of many ways NBNERR collects information about the health of Narragansett Bay. Because the count is done every year, it lets us see whether things are changing over time,” explained Caitlin Chaffee, Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve manager. “This information is important to scientists who may want to investigate changes further. It can also inform the actions of resource managers and decision-makers who are responsible for protecting the health of the Bay.”
Since the launch of Save The Bay’s Bay-Wide Seal Count initiative in 2009, citizen scientists around Narragansett Bay have collected data on visible, hauled-out seals to establish a minimum estimate of the local seal population.
The Bay-Wide Seal Count is part of Save The Bay’s citizen scientist monitoring program, which runs annually from September through May 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. Grey seals—spotted rarely in the Bay, but more frequently on Block Island—can be found in our coastal waters year-round.
“When planning the count, we look to schedule it on a day with ideal weather at the height of the seal season so we can count as many seals as possible,” explained Lewis. “This year matched that description wonderfully. With low winds and clear weather, the conditions were perfect.”
“Given that the conditions were so ideal, the counts were a little lower than we would expect,” added Save The Bay Lead Captain Eric Pfirrmann. Similar conditions in 2016, for example, yielded a total count of 603 seals. “This is a perfect example of why it’s important to track this data year after year. Otherwise, we might not have noticed the change. We’ll be watching these numbers closely in the coming years.”
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, which prohibits the killing, taking, or harassing of marine mammals. 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 safely 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 24, with daily tours taking place during Rhode Island’s April school vacation week, April 18-22. For more information about Save The Bay’s Seal Tours, visit savebay.org/seal.