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New England Welcomes Back Endangered Grey Seal Population


Recent aerial survey conducted over the New England region revealed that the dwindling grey seal population is finally restoring a healthy figure.

grey seal

Duke Marine Lab UAS

Thanks to modern technology, otherwise traditional surveys are now more conveniently accomplished utilizing images taken via Google Earth, drone footage, and thermal cameras. These have helped scientists working at Duke University confirm that the number of grey seals that they initially thought to be inhabiting the Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod have surprisingly doubled.

Assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment David W. Johnston remarks: “Past surveys based on traditional methods of counting, using occupied aircraft to survey seals on beaches, islands and seasonal ice cover, counted about 15,000 seals off the southeastern Massachusetts coast.”

grey seal

Duke Marine Lab UAS

He further says: “Our technology-aided aerial survey, which used Google Earth imagery in conjunction with telemetry data from tagged animals, suggests the number is much larger – between 30,000 and 50,000. This is a conservation success that should be celebrated.”

For one century, grey seals were popular prey to bounty hunters, who made a living out of the animals’ meat, skin and oil. Thanks to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act that was passed almost 50 decades ago, grey seals were finally recognized as an endangered species that demanded protection. Nonetheless, a century of damage proved almost irreparable. And unintentional deaths caused by fishing net entanglement were recorded from 1994 to 1998, at a rate of 75 grey seals per year.

grey seal

Duke Marine Lab UAS

Even when the grey seal population finally enjoyed a gradual recovery, scientists in the past decades found difficulty in counting these marine mammals owing to their ability to blend into their environment through camouflage.

However, using today’s thermal imaging cameras, the grey seal population can be more accurately monitored by detecting their heat signatures instead of relying on vision alone.

The study’s lead researcher Alex Seymour explains: “Seal pups are born with a white coat, which makes them hard to see against ice or snow using traditional imagery. But they can’t hide from thermal imagery.”

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