In the Bay of Somme, baby seals abandoned by tourists

Allouville-Bellefosse (Seine-Maritime) and Saint-Valery-sur-Somme (Somme), report

We can suffer from your cuteness ? Surely, we thought, looking into the big black eyes of the little seals (Vitulina seal). Here they lie on the faded tiles of the crèche Chene in Allouville-Bellefosse (Seine-Maritime). Wet coats, thin snouts and long whiskers, Maloya, Pogo and Calypso hop around awkwardly as they wait for their meal.

Her screams increase when her caretaker, Julia, arrives, her arms laden with pink fish soup. Dressed in a medical gown, the young woman delicately holds the tiny seals between her thighs before intubating them to make them swallow the mixture. If we want to make them regain their strength, we have no choice.She explains. They’re not dogs, they don’t eat from a bowl. it would be too good ! »

Calypso, who still can’t swallow fish whole, is tube fed. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre

In all, eight seal pups have been collected by the center since early summer. All were abandoned by their nursing mothers, probably after being harassed by tourists. Out of curiosity, people come to see seals up close when they are resting on the sand. Mothers get scared and run into the water, while babies stay still », says Julia. When they arrived at the care center, most were little bigger than cats. Some still had the umbilical cord.

it’s disastroussighs a nurse, Louise. Some tourists even hug them. It makes orphans. » Not all babies survive this forced separation. Two young people taken in by the center after being handled by humans have died this year. There’s one left in my arms », breathes Julia. She jokes: They must look fiercer. Maybe we would get closer. »

They must look fiercer. Maybe we would get closer. » © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre

The residents of Le Chene were born 130 kilometers away, on the Picardy coast of the Bay of Somme (Hauts-de-France): immense expanses of sand surrounded by glaziers, constantly naked and clothed by the sea. region in the 1980s.

Now it represents a true godsend: more than 2 million visitors visit its beaches and salt meadows each year, generating more than 2,000 jobs and 160 million euros in revenue, according to data from Somme Tourisme. The agency has a natural heritage exceptional »that can be consumed at any time of year »as its director François Bergez explained echoesin 2020.

Snow globes and keychains

The local seal colony, home to around 400 seals (Vitulina seal) and 100 gray stamps (Halichoerus grypus), has contributed a lot to the development of this industry. In Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, from where most expeditions depart nature », phocids are everywhere. Available in snow globes, stuffed animals or key chains, baby seals with mischievous smiles and mischievous eyes flood the windows of tobacconists and souvenir merchants.

Even in restaurant bathrooms, posters promise an single » meet marine mammals. On the crowded pier, everyone watches the animal, the camera slung over their shoulders. At sea, the drivers of tourist boats gather in front of the sandbars where the phocids rest to explain to customers, microphone in hand, how they live.

About fifteen endangered young seals are collected each year by the associations. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre

The situation bothers as much as it worries Patrick Thiery, president of the environmental protection association Picardie Nature. The Baie de Somme is almost presented as a free animal park », he regrets. Since the place was labeled Great Site of France »in 2011, nature-related commercial activities exploded in areas where birds and seals live. There are walking guides, electric scooters, fat bikes, horses, canoes, motor boats… When we add it all up, we arrive at an accumulation of activity, at low tide and at high tide, when they reproduce. There is no rest. »

No impact studies have been carried out to assess the cumulative effects of these activities on the ecosystem, regrets Patrick Thiery. The incessant ballet of humans around the sandbars is, however, likely to stress wildlife. While it’s forbidden to approach seals within a 300-meter radius, Picardie Nature volunteers often observe hikers stopping to pet them or take selfies with them.

Inconveniences with serious consequences

Seals are able to learn what may or may not be a source of disturbance », highlights Cécile Vincent, professor-researcher at the Center for Biological Studies in Chizé and a specialist in seals. It evokes the example of an English breeding farm, located next to a runway for Royal Air Force planes. There is enormous noise pollution, but the seals have gotten used to it, because they know that no one will come to touch them. » In the Baie de Somme, where humans move freely, seals can’t be sure. Out of fear, they sometimes jump into the water when approaching.

Not good for them for thermoregulation issuescontinues Cecile Vincent. If they do it once, it’s not dramatic. The problem is repetition. Seals are warm-blooded animals. They live in a cooler environment than their bodies, which must remain around 37°C. Underwater, the environment is much colder, and the heat loss is much greater than in air. If they frequently enter the water to escape disturbances, they lose energy. » Mothers are also at risk of not being reunited with their young when they return to Earth. He can clearly » reduce the number of employees, according to the researcher.

The most self-sufficient fences are fed into this pool. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre

For the moment, she says, the colony is doing well. But tourism adds to other threats related to human activities, such as climate change, the reduction of fish stocks or the accidental capture of seals by fishermen. The effects of these cumulative impacts are unknown.emphasizes Cécile Vincent. You have to take a cautious approach, without necessarily blocking everything. »

Each year, about 15 seals in danger – or 10 % of newborns — are picked up by Picardie Nature volunteers, then placed in the Chene care center or Animal Protection League (EPS) of Calais. But if we weren’t there to patrol and avoid disturbances, it would be 30 or 40 »believes Patrick Thiery.

In addition to seals, birds are also collected by the Chene. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre

Seals aren’t the only ones suffering from the influx of visitors. Stepping on by passersby can damage the plants. Birds, some of which nest on beaches, can also be disturbed by tourist activities. When there are low altitude balloon flights, the burners make a devilish noise and the birds fly »says Patrick Thiery.

The president of Picardie Nature denounces a flagrant imbalance » between the income generated by the tourism exploitation of the ecosystem and the means destined to its protection. All these activities generate hundreds of thousands of euros in turnover, as we paddle to organize the summer accompaniment and find accommodation to house our volunteers. »

Each summer, the association struggles with a dozen volunteers to educate hundreds of thousands of tourists. It’s not ideal. » Chene’s backup center is also struggling to survive. Caring for a young seal costs more than 2,000 euros. We are supported by communities, but not as much as we should be »believes Alain Beaufils, its manager.

We suffer the goodwill of politicians and financiers »

The mixed union Baie de Somme-Grand Littoral Picard, which manages the reserve, also alleges a lack of financial and human resources. He currently has only two sworn guards to guard several thousand hectares. We suffer the goodwill of politicians and financiersconfides Alexandre Quénu, curator of the nature reserve. Maintaining and justifying everyone’s positions is a constant battle. We would be more comfortable with an additional person or two. »

Patrick Thiery, from Picardie Nature, has defended for several years the principle of an ecotax, which would be collected from tourist companies and then transferred to those who protect the reserve. Discussions with reserve managers so far have not been successful. Only a few advances have been made in the field of communication. Somme Tourisme has committed itself to no longer using close-up images of seals in its media, so as not to give visitors the impression that it is possible to approach them up close.

The agency is also trying to develop the tourist offer in the interior in order to reduce the pressure on the coast. But we cannot force our institutional partners and private service providers not to communicate on the seal.says Dorothée Maréchal, head of the performance development division. It sells better than a plant, they necessarily try to use this image. »

Seals will be released if they survive to 35 kilograms. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre

Other ways of living with seals have yet to be invented. Every year, Picardie Nature organizes observation points with telescopes, thanks to which phocids can be observed without being disturbed. Julia, from Chene, suggests closing some beaches to the public during the seal breeding season. Such a measure still seems a long way off. Meanwhile, the trainers fix the broken pots.

By Chene’s pool, Julia teaches her charges to eat whole fish. Salsa, Boogie and Hip seem to be on the right track. The little seals writhe in the water up to the healer’s legs, then leap to catch the herring she hands them. If they survive, they will be released in the fall, when they reach 35 kilograms. Until then, the parking lots will be empty. The bay will resonate with noises other than those of tourists.


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