Belgium’s coast, a short stretch of sandy shoreline facing the North Sea, has become a popular destination for an unexpected group of visitors: seals. The marine mammals, which belong to two species: grey seals and harbour seals, have been appearing in growing numbers since the Covid-19 pandemic, when they found the beaches to be calm and suitable for resting and breeding.
But the return of people to the coast, especially ahead of the summer season, poses a challenge for the seal conservation. The animals are protected by law and need to be left alone by humans and dogs, who can stress them out or harm them. Some people, unaware of the seals’ needs, try to pet them, feed them or take selfies with them. Others, mistakenly thinking that the seals are stranded, attempt to put them back in the water.
To prevent these conflicts and educate the public on how to coexist with the seals peacefully, a volunteer group called the North Seal Team was created shortly after the Covid restrictions were imposed in Belgium. The group patrols the beaches and ropes off areas that seals are using. They also tell people to keep a minimum distance of 30 meters from the animals and not to feed them.
“We take turns all day long, from seven in the morning to 10 or 11 at night,” said Inge de Bruycker, founder of the North Seal Team. “Seals have bitten dogs, dogs have bitten seals… we don’t want this to happen to people, especially not to children.”
The group also collaborates with the Sea Life Center in Blankenberge, which takes care of injured seals and monitors their situation. “They send us images of the animals and we decide whether to intervene or not,” said Steve Vermote, the executive director of the center.
According to Kelle Moreau, a marine biologist and spokesman for the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, the population of seals near the Belgian coast is probably between 100 and 200. He explained that the beaches are essential for seal pups, which need to stay on the land until they get hungry enough to go into the sea and learn how to hunt. “If someone feeds them, they won’t go into the sea and learn how to hunt,” he said.
Moreau also said that the seals have become accustomed to resting on the beaches and that people are generally happy when they see them. “The seals became used to coming to rest up on the beaches and people are generally happy when they see them, they want to pet them, take selfies,” he said.
But he warned that human interference could have negative consequences for the seal conservation. “And when you go near them, if they go swimming again they can drown. If they are tired, they can drown,” he said.
Belgium is not the only country that has seen an increase in seal sightings during the pandemic. Other countries along the North Sea coast, such as Germany and Denmark, have also reported more frequent encounters with the animals. Experts say that this is a sign of recovery for the seal population, which was nearly wiped out by hunting and pollution in the past.
But it also means that humans have to learn to share their beaches with these new neighbors and respect their natural behavior. As Moreau put it: “They are wild animals. They are not pets.”
– Belgium learns to share its beaches with sleepy seals, Phys.org, May 12, 2023
– Seals are making a comeback in Belgium: This team of volunteers helping them coexist with humans, Euronews Green, May 12, 2023
– Seals make their home to Belgium’s beaches in wake of pandemic, CGTN, May 13, 2023