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Seals blamed for increased shark sightings, great white attack off Cape Cod

Harbor seal.jpg

A rebounding seal population has brought sharks to the shores of New England, say experts.

Efforts to protect the once-dwindling seal population along the New England coast have been so successful that sharks have noticed.

The first great white shark attack off Cape Cod in 75 years has put the spotlight on the adorable critters, because the sharks have come ever closer to beaches in pursuit of seals. And with the regional gray seal population -- down to just 10,000 in the 1960s and now as high as 300,000 -- shark sightings are on the rise, too.

“We believe that the reason the great white sharks are coming closer to shore in the Cape Cod area, specifically on the eastern shore is because of the growing gray seal population."

- Greg Skomal, marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

“We believe that the reason the great white sharks are coming closer to shore in the Cape Cod area, specifically on the Eastern shore, is because of the growing gray seal population," Greg Skomal, marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told FoxNews.com. "Sharks like to eat seals [and] because the gray seal population has really grown dramatically in the last couple of years, they’re targeting them.” 

Monday's attack took place in front of several horrified witnesses. Christopher Myers and his son were about 80 yards off of Ballston Beach in Truro when he was bitten on the lower part of both legs.He managed to make it to shore and is recuperating in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Great white shark sightings have increased off the coast of Massachusetts in the last several years, and state researchers have been monitoring and tagging the sharks since 2009. And since their food supply likes the beach, so do they, according to experts.

“The areas along the outer beaches have fairly good channels along the edges of them," said Gordon Waring, Fisheries Research Biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. "The seals use those sand bars and beaches [to congregate]. There could be hundreds to thousands of seals around those areas on any given day.”

Once at the brink of extinction, seals have been untouchable since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMP), and were virtually unseen in the U.S. until the 1980s. Since then, the animals have ‘re-colonized and established a year-round presence,’ according to Waring. Muskeget Island, roughly 20 miles off Cape Cod, in the Nantucket Sound, is the largest seal pupping colony in U.S. waters.

“Something needs to be done. We control all the other species, why can’t we control these?” John Our, commercial fisherman in Chatham, Mass., and captain of the Miss Fitz, told FoxNews.com.

The Seal Abatement Coalition [SCA], whose website urges "sensible management of the Cape and Island shorelines," to reclaim them from the "infestation of gray seals," could not be reached for comment. But the group stops short of advocating hunting seals, instead calling for "dispersal." 

Brian Rothschild, a marine science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, told the Boston Herald that getting control of the seal population may require help from lawmakers in Washington..

“Society has some tough decisions to make,” he said. “Most people believe the seals are attracting the sharks, and the only thing they can do is control the seal population. But to do that would require a revision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and that’s a big deal."