NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island has made calamari its official appetizer and the burying beetle its official insect, and now the 500 harbor seals that spend winter around the state's rocky shoreline could get a new distinction: official state marine mammals.
"They're adorable," said Lisa Konicki, who came up with the idea as executive director of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce in the beachfront town of Westerly. "Look at their faces. They're so cute. What's not to love about a harbor seal?"
Coastal business groups have lined up behind a bill in the Legislature as a way of promoting tourism. So has Providence's Roger Williams Park Zoo, which renovated its seal exhibit.
The Westerly Democrat who introduced the legislation, Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, said he has never seen one except on TV, but he knows they are a source of pride to Rhode Islanders who use binoculars to watch them or take wintertime boat tours led by nonprofit organization Save the Bay.
When tides are low along Narragansett Bay, the seals can be spotted hauling onto rocks from the shadow of Newport's Pell Bridge to the industrial edges of Providence. They recline in a way that marine veterinarian Allison Tuttle likes to describe as "the happy banana."
"That's a really restful position for them," said Tuttle, who directs the veterinary rescue program at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. The program responds to animals needing assistance — often because of human interaction — on the coast of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York's Fishers Island.
Raising local awareness and educating people about the seals could also help the animals, said Tuttle. The seals are not considered threatened or endangered but the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal for humans to approach or harass them.
By late spring, most of Rhode Island's wintertime seal population begins migrating north before their breeding and pup season begins. Tuttle said they travel around Massachusetts and toward colder waters near New Hampshire and Maine. They return to Rhode Island by November.
Azzinaro said fellow lawmakers have greeted his bill positively and he isn't worried about detractors who might consider it a waste of time. Harbor seals would join a long list of animals and products granted honorary titles, from the Rhode Island Red — named state bird in 1954 — to the quahog, which became state shell in 1987.
"I have a good feeling about it," he said. "These people always have something to say, no matter what you do."