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Too many seals? Pests or conservation success?

Is it time to cull the herd? Fishermen, beachgoers, and local governments argue the marine mammal has become a nuisance.
The mild winter is affecting the health of ice seals in Maine.

PORTLAND, Maine — The increasing number of seals off New England waters has set off a debate over whether there are just too many of these resilient mammals. 

A growing number of fishermen, beachgoers, and local government officials are blaming the seals for spreading disease, eating too many fish, and drawing sharks to the local waters. 

RELATED: One woman has died from an apparent shark attack off Harpswell coast

The Gray seal population was decimated by hunting for more than a century but that ended with the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 which protected the carnivore. 

Scientists who study seal populations acknowledged their numbers have reached as many as 50,000, but they said there is little scientific evidence to support calls to reduce their numbers, noting that could actually do more harm than good to the marine ecosystem.

In the past, researchers combined Google Earth images and data from tagged seals to make a more precise estimation of the population. In a study published in Bioscience in 2017 researchers show the masses of seals on the beaches of Nantucket.

According to NOAA gray seals can get as big as ten feet and live as long as 35 years.