When to draw the line between research and protection

I run a marine debris program that performs monthly surveys, with the help of trained volunteers, at beach sites along the coast. During the winter months we often come in contact with elephant seals at our survey plots.  Recently I was joining my volunteers during their survey and, although several cows and pups were in our survey plot, we made sure to steer clear of them while trying to collect data.

Regardless of our effort to reduce the disturbance, we ended up aggravating one mother who watched our every move and called out to us several times to leave her and her pup alone.  Thankfully we didn’t have very much data to collect and cut both our survey area and timing short to accommodate the elephant seals but I still felt badly about a relatively botched survey AND the disturbance we caused.

My big question is, which is more important:

1) Collecting data with the goal of using that research to better protect marine mammals and improve beach management, or;

2) Forgoing data collection in order to let these bird and mammal species thrive by simply letting them be?

Is there a point when science can actually cause more harm than good?  And in the future, regardless of staying the required distance from these mammal, should I have my volunteers cancel their surveys if there are any elephant seals in their vicinity at all?

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