NEWPORT R.I. (WPRI) — Every March, the seals are counted in Narragansett Bay. Their population can be an indicator of the bay’s overall health. Save the Bay staff and volunteers counted 479 harbor seals around Narragansett Bay last Monday.

“Thirty years ago, there were no harbor seals in Narragansett Bay,” Eric Pfirrmann of Save the Bay lamented.

Pfirrmann has counted seals for 22 years. He said local seals were once hunted because they were seen as competition for the bay’s fish stock.

“However, today, since we passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act back in 1972, their numbers have slowly, slowly risen,” Pfirrmann told 12 News.

For more than two decades, seals have been counted in specific spots of the bay. Since 2009, a statewide tally has been conducted by Save the Bay.

“We do the bay-wide seal count one day of the year,” Pfirrman added.

This year’s count was on March 20. Save the Bay staff and volunteers spread out around the bay and counted seals.

“It’s an important way for us to follow the trends to what their population is looking like. Their population can give us clues as to how the whole bay is doing,” Pfirrmann explained.

With the exception of 2015, when much of the bay was frozen, and 2020 due to the pandemic, the count has shown a mostly steady population in Narragansett Bay.

Pfirrmann said that means there are plenty of fish, which gives us a snapshot of the health of the bay.

Seals can be found in nearly all coastal Rhode Island communities, including off Bristol, Newport, North Kingstown, Providence, and on the small rocks in between.

Finding the seals can be tough, however.

“They also blend in really well to the rocks that they’re sitting on. It takes a somewhat trained and experienced eye,” Pfirrmann said while looking through a pair of binoculars off Rose Island in Newport.

These mammals can be the size of people and can eat 5% of their body weight in a day, or spend the day taking a nap.

“Our harbor seals are migratory. They follow the big schools of herring that make their way down the Atlantic coast,” Pfirrman said.

On this seal-counting day, Pfirrmann counted 125 seals off the Newport, Portsmouth and Bristol coasts, including on Hope and Prudence islands. These are some of the harder spots to reach, so Pfirrmann will take the Save the Bay vessel “Aletta Morris” to count seals. Other volunteers will count them from shore.

Seals off Rose Island
Seals off Rose Island

In North Kingstown, Wade Diehl counted 105 seals at Rome Point last Saturday morning and another five off Fox Island for a grand total of 110. Diehl planned to count again on Monday.

In the bay, 479 harbor seals were counted. On Block Island, 34 harbor seals were spotted as well as 101 gray seals.

“It’s a real treat to be able to see an animal our size and just so cute and a great ambassador for the bay,” Pfirrmann added.

Save the Bay is always looking for volunteers to do coastal cleanups and count seals.

The group also runs seal watch tours through April vacation.