Cull the seals, save the cod.
It’s a popular refrain, heard most loudly in Newfoundland and Labrador around this time of year as the Canadian commercial seal hunt is drawing to a close and as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) releases quotas for cod and other groundfish species.
Even if the federal government were to put its stamp of approval on a plan to drastically reduce harp and grey seal populations beyond the meagre harvests currently experienced, what would harvesters even do with all those seals in a world that is becoming increasingly opposed to the hunt?
The list of countries banning the import of seal products altogether climbed to 35 on the eve of the hunt last month when India — a country of 1.3 billion — joined the likes of the United States, Russia, Mexico and all of Europe.
Labrador MP Yvonne Jones isn’t endorsing a cull, but says Canada needs to take more seals out of the ocean if it hopes to create a sustainable ecosystem.
“We’ve shied away from the industry because of animal rights groups and greedy (animal) welfare funds that have capitalized on what has been a sustainable, cultural harvest,” Jones told The Telegram following a National Seal Product Day event at Confederation Building in St. John’s last week.
“In 25 years in Newfoundland and Labrador we have not seen the resurgence of cod stocks in a way we’ve predicted and, in fact, today the sustainability of other groundfish industries are being jeopardized and so is the sustainability of the shellfish industries. That’s because we have ignored the seal.”
Recently, DFO research scientist Mariano Koen-Alonso told the Saltwire Network the declines in cod are being seen across the ecosystem and drops in food sources for cod, including shrimp and capelin, need to be considered.
“Looking back through these chains since 2014 we’re seeing lower levels of primary production. The plants in the oceans are not producing as much and from there you have this domino effect,” he said.
- the same time, weaker fish moving out into more exposed areas in search of food could also be easier prey for predators, including seals.
Despite suggesting that “if we do not deal with the seal populations, we will not necessarily see full recovery of our fish populations” in a House of Assembly committee meeting last month, provincial Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne is not promoting a cull, but neither is he agreeing to government offering new incentives for seal kills.
Byrne said he would like to find ways to encourage an uptick in demand for seal products.
He is promoting a renewed effort at the federal level to encourage new markets, both foreign and domestic. That includes a fresh push for Canadian seal products into Asia, but also a joint effort for producers from this province, Quebec and Nunavut for more sales within Canada.
“That obviously is the preferred method of reducing the seal population to sustainable levels,” he said.
Byrne did not rule out using the Atlantic Fisheries Fund for a marketing effort, but the expenditure there is driven through individual applications.
“(But) I can see a company being produced to stimulate market interest, consumer interest … through those funds,” he said.
Jones, meanwhile, said the federal government would like to see more diversity in seal products, suggesting more opportunities for pharmaceutical applications and food uses, like protein powders.
She also says there should be a bigger push on sealskin as leather, as it’s still considered a high-priced and heavily traded commodity.
“I really believe that the government of Canada, provinces, territories and individuals need to really start putting more money into researching what those particular market products could be,” she said.
“I think we need to look at where the demands are for products and the niche we can create with what we have. That’s where we need to spend more energy and more of our time.”
Fish, Food and Allied Workers-Unifor inshore director Bill Broderick agreed there is a need for diversification in the quest to find new markets for seal products, and said there needs to be more research done, particularly into the pharmaceutical arena.
“Just fancy where we would be if there was something developed from seal products,” Broderick said. “Greenpeace would slide away quickly if the world was after something that was going to save lives.”
Even with the federal government showing support for the hunt through the occasions like National Seal Products Day, ultimately, Ottawa would sooner not deal with the seal issue at all, he says.
“They just wish seals would go away, that they could wake up tomorrow morning and the word seal would never get mentioned again,” he says.
“That’s not only the politicians, that’s bureaucrats in Ottawa who deal with industries in this country, who are frightened to death that someone’s going to shut them down if they’re seen as promoting seals. We’re paralyzed by it.”
On the contrary, local craftsperson Clare Fowler, one of the artisans displaying a selection of her sealskin and seal fur products at Confederation Building last week, said the event and National Seal Products Day “says, unequivocally, that Canadians support the seal hunt as a really wonderful thing.”
With files from Kyle Greenham