Allouville-Bellefosse (Seine-Maritime) and Saint-Valery-sur-Somme (Somme), report
Can we suffer from his cuteness ? Surely, we think, looking into the big black eyes of the little harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). The voices extended on the faded tiles of the Chêne care center, in Allouville-Bellefosse (Seine-Maritime). Wet coats, thin museums and long mustaches, Maloya, Pogo and Calypso hop awkwardly while waiting for their meal.
Their cries escalate as their caretaker, Julia, arrives, arms laden with pinkish fish soup. Dressed in a medical suit, the young woman delicately wedges the little 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 choiceshe explains. They are not dogs, they do not eat from a bowl. It would be too good ! »
- Calypso, who cannot yet swallow whole fish, is tube fed. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre
In all, eight seal pups have been collected by the center since the beginning of the summer. All were abandoned by their still-nursing mothers, most likely after being disturbed by tourists. “ Out of curiosity, people come to see the seals up close when they are resting on the sand. Moms are scared and flee into the water, while babies stay put », says Julia. When they arrived at the care center, most were barely bigger than cats. Some still had their umbilical cord.
“ It’s disastroussighs a nurse, Louise. Some tourists even go so far as to 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 already died this year. “ There’s one who left in my arms », breathes Julia. She quips: “ They should look fiercer. Maybe we would get closer. »
- “ They should look fiercer. Maybe we would get closer. » © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre
The residents of Le Chêne were born 130 kilometers away, on the Picardy coast of the Bay of Somme (Hauts-de-France): immense expanses of sand surrounded by glasswort, constantly bare and dressed by the sea. Tourism began to develop in the region during the 1980s.
It represents today a real way: more than 2 million visitors survey its beaches and salt meadows each year, generating more than 2,000 jobs and 160 million euros in income, according to figures from Somme Tourisme. The agency boasts a natural heritage “ exceptional »can be consumed “ at any time of the year »as its director François Bergez explained to echoesin 2020.
Snow globes and keychains
The local seal colony, home to around 400 seals (Phoca vitulina) and 100 gray seals (Halichoerus grypus), has benefited the development of this industry. In Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, where most expeditions depart “ nature », phocids are everywhere. Available in snow globes, stuffed animals or key rings, baby seals with mischievous smiles and mischievous eyes flood the windows of tobacconists and souvenir merchants.
Even in restaurant toilets, posters promise an experience “ unique » meet marine mammals. On the crowded quays, everyone watches for the animal, camera slung over their shoulders. At sea, the drivers of tourist boats crowd in front of the sandbanks where the phocids settle to explain to their customers, microphone in hand, how they live.
- About fifteen young seals in distress are collected each year by the associations. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre
The situation annoys as much as it worries Patrick Thiery, president of the environmental protection association Picardie Nature. “ The Baie de Somme is practically presented as a free animal park », he regrets. Since the place was labeled “ Grand 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, motorboats… When you add it all up, you arrive at an accumulation of activity, at low tide and at high tide, right when they breed. There is no respite. »
No impact study has been carried out to assess the cumulative effects of these activities on the ecosystem, regrets Patrick Thiery. The incessant ballet of human beings around the sandbanks is however likely, according to him, to stress the wildlife. Although it is forbidden to approach the seals within 300 meters, the volunteers of Picardie Nature frequently observe walkers 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 », points out Cécile Vincent, teacher-researcher at the Center for Biological Studies in Chizé and specialist in seals. She evokes the example of an English breeding site, located right next to a runway for Royal Air Force aircraft. “ There is enormous noise pollution, but the seals have got used to it, because they know that nobody will come to touch them. » In the Baie de Somme, where humans move freely, seals cannot have this certainty. Out of fear, they sometimes jump into the water when they approach.
“ It’s not good for them for thermoregulation issuescontinues Cécile Vincent. If they do it once, it’s not dramatic. The problem is repetition. Seals are warm-blooded animals. They live in a colder environment than their bodies, which must stay at around 37°C. Underwater, the environment is much colder, and the heat loss is much greater than in the air. If they frequently go into the water to flee disturbances, they lose energy. » Mothers also risk not being reunited with their young when they return to earth. It may “ clearly » reduce the number of staff, according to the researcher.
- The most self-sufficient seals are fed in this pool. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre
For the moment, she says, the colony is doing well. But tourism is added 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 not necessarily knownemphasizes Cécile Vincent. You have to have a cautious approach, without having to block everything. »
Each year, about 15 seals in distress — or 10 % of newborns — are picked up by Picardie Nature volunteers, then placed in the Chêne care center or the Animal Protection League (PLA) from Calais. “ But if we weren’t there to patrol and prevent disturbances, there would be 30 or 40 »believes Patrick Thiery.
- In addition to seals, birds are also collected by the Oak. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre
Seals are not the only ones to suffer from the influx of visitors. Trampling by passers-by can damage 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 racket, and the birds fly »says Patrick Thiery.
The president of Picardie Nature denounces a “ flagrant imbalance » between the income generated by the tourist exploitation of the ecosystem and the means authorized for its protection. “ All these activities have generated hundreds of thousands of euros in turnover, while we row to organize summer surveillance and find lodgings to house our volunteers. »
Each summer, the association struggles with a dozen volunteers to educate hundreds of thousands of tourists. “ It’s not ideal. » The Oak backup center is also struggling to make ends meet. The care of a young seal costs more than 2,000 euros. “ We are supported by the communities, but not as much as we claim to be »believes Alain Beaufils, responsible son.
“ We suffer the goodwill of politicians and funders »
The Baie de Somme-Grand Littoral Picard joint union, which manages the reserve, also pleads a lack of financial and human resources. For the moment, it only has two confirmed guards to watch over several thousand hectares. “ We suffer the goodwill of politicians and fundersconfides Alexandre Quénu, the curator of the nature reserve. Maintaining and justifying everyone’s positions is a constant battle. We would be more comfortable with one or two additional people. »
Patrick Thiery, from Picardie Nature, has been defending for several years the principle of an eco-tax, which would be levied on tourist companies, then reversed on those who authorize the reserve. Discussions with the managers of the reserve have so far been unsuccessful. Only a few advances have been made in the field of communication. Somme Tourisme has undertaken to no longer use close-up images of seals in its media, so as not to give visitors the impression that it is possible to approach them closely.
The agency is also trying to develop the tourist offer inland 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 sealsays Dorothée Maréchal, head of the performance development division. It sells better than a plant, they try to use that image. »
- The seals will be released if they survive to reach 35 kilos. © Tiphaine Blot / Reporterre
Other ways of living with seals have yet to be invented. Picardie Nature organizes observation points with a telescope every year, thanks to which the phocids can be observed without being disturbed. Julia, from Chêne, suggests closing certain beaches to the public during the seal breeding season. Such a measure still seems a long way off. In the meantime, the trainers repair the broken pots.
On the edges of the Chêne swimming pool, Julia teaches her protégés to eat whole fish. Salsa, Boogie and Hip seem on track. The little seals wriggle in the water up to the keeper’s legs, then leap to catch the herring she hands them. If they survive, they will be released in the fall, when they will have reached 35 kilos. By then, the parking lots will be emptied. The bay will resonate with noises other than those of tourists.
Our report in pictures: