A series of mysterious attacks on seals is being investigated by marine scientists on the New England coast. Ten of the protected sea mammals have turned up mutilated in as many months, some of them decapitated, skinned or with their genitals missing.
"Someone out there knows what is happening," said Andy Cohen, who is in charge of enforcing a 1972 law protecting seals. "We are looking at these as individual separate incidents but also as a whole. We use forensics. Do the seals have the same tool marks, are they skinned by the same knife?"
Various explanations have been offered as public concern has grown. Among them is a theory that hunters are capturing the mammals either for their skins or for their penises, which are popular in some Asian countries as an aphrodisiac.
Until four decades ago, Massachusetts offered a bounty to fishermen who killed seals and turned in their snouts. The bounty system arose because of the belief that seals were emptying the ocean of fish. However, there is no evidence that the fishermen, who face tough new restrictions on catches, are responsible this time.
Since the introduction of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the seal population off the New England coast has soared. There are an estimated 100,000 harbor seals today, compared with 5,500 in 1972, and they have become a popular tourist attraction each summer. Gray seals that numbered 20 in 1982 now have a population of about 7,000.
Local officials have been bombarded with sightings of dead seals. Most, however, are likely to have died from natural causes. "Dead seals are a common event," said Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium in Boston.
Of the 10 mutilated seals so far discovered, four were skinned and had their genitals removed. One other male had its genitals missing, and four seals were decapitated. Another seal was shot but survived.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd