It was a sunny Saturday morning, March 16, as pairs of people emerged from cars parked on the far East side of Dune Road in Westhampton Beach. Here at Cupsogue Beach County Park, Dr. Arthur Kopelman, founder and ecologist of Coastal Research Education Society of Long Island, takes weekly expeditions toward the bayside inlet, where he studies the seal populations that reside there.
Dressed in a tan winter overall, with a long grey beard and a gold dangling fish-fin earring, Kopelman was hard to miss as he stood among a gathering group of attendees, volunteers and two CNN reporters.
Kopelman led the group of 35 down a dune path towards the bay side of the inlet. Everyone turned their backs to brace themselves against the elements as sand whipped through the wind.
His data-keeping endeavors at Cupsogue began in 2004 and became much more frequent and consistent two years later. To date, he has had 20,000 seal encounters at the site. Of that, 181 of them are regulars who have returned to the beach every winter since 2006.
“We’ll definitely go out in any kinda weather, it doesn’t matter if it’s rain, sleet, or snow,” Kathleen Dwyer-Willoughby, software designer and CRESLI volunteer from Mineola, said.
“I really wasn’t expecting that in the middle of a snow storm twenty or so people would come out,” Dwyer-Willoughby said with a laugh.
Sprawled along sandbars in the inlet, which are only exposed at low tide, was a herd of 91 Harbor seals, the most common breed to frequent this location.
The colony hauls up for several hours, twice a day, to rest and socialize, Kopelman said. They tend to give birth on land as well but migrate North later in the spring to do so.
Kopelman began his career in ecology after graduating from The Graduate School and University Center of CUNY in 1987, however he has always been interested in biology and nature. A whale outing in Montauk thirty years ago is what got him hooked, he said.
“What really got me into working to protect the environment, to be honest, was Japan with Minamata disease,” Kopelman said.
From 1932 to 1968, a chemical factory, Chico Corporation, was releasing methylmercury in the industrial wastewater which bioaccumulated to highly toxic levels in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay. When consumed by the local population, it resulted in mercury poisoning, later being coined Minamata disease.
“I swore I’d spend the rest of my life making sure stuff like this doesn’t happen,” he said.
Since then, he has succeeded in entering a field that focuses on marine environmental conservation. Kopelman has also taught biology and ecology courses at The Fashion Institute of New York for the last 38 years.
“Yes, it’s a fashion institute and yes, there’s science courses,” he said in a sarcastic manner.
This year, CRESLI recorded 197 seals sprawled on the Cupsogue inlet; the highest average population sited since Kopelman began his ecology efforts. Harp, Hooded, and Ringed seals have also been spotted in Long Island waters, as the area is an opportunistic area to hunt and hang out, Kopelman said. The highest recorded haul-out that Kopelman has witnessed was 197, earlier this year.
A Harbor seal, on average is 200 pound and between four and six feet. Regardless of their size and hauling out on beaches in large numbers, seals frighten easily from human interaction, which can mess up Kopelman’s work.
Around Christmas time, Adam Kopels, a Long Island native, met Kopelman while out at Cupsogue. Kopels recalled Kopelman as dedicated, professional and impassioned about protecting the environment.
He was photographing the seals when someone on a paddle board “mindlessly disrupted the seals,” Kopels said. Kopelman was quick to tell the man that he was violating the law. Then he notified the Department of Environmental Conservation, who oversees environmental regulations.
“If he hadn’t been there then that guy would’ve paddled by the seals and spooked them back into the water,” he said. But a few minutes later, the boarder paddled toward the herd again.
CRESLI works alongside several other organizations, like Riverhead Foundation, the only seal rehabilitation center in New York.
“If they see an animal tangled they report it to us,” Maxine Montello, program director of Riverhead Foundation, said. CRESLI usually looks at the haul out sites of the adults whereas the foundation focuses more on the young seal pups.
From January to May 2018 they rehabilitated 34 seals, many entangled in man-made plastic waste. Fishing nets and fishing lines are the usual suspects and are often found around the seal’s neck or front flippers.
One seal Kopelman studied had plastic ringing its neck for eight years, yet removing the material is harder than one could imagine.
When an attendee on the walk asked why Kopelman and other ecologists don’t just tranquilize the animals and clip off the plastic, he explained that the animals would become fearful once shot and jump back into the water to escape harm, ultimately being at risk of dying because they would go unconscious soon after from the sedation. Federal regulations also do not allow for humans to intervene if the seal is surrounded by other seals, which can make rehabilitation efforts for adult seals difficult.
“You can’t get there easily or dart them because they’ll hop in the water, knock out and drown,” he said. You must wait until they present themselves somewhere more accessible, which can be a waiting game as the seals are difficult to track. The easier solution is to reduce the plastic pollution, which Kopelman hopes legislation will tackle in the upcoming year.
“If you see rope, please pick it up,” he said.