The fishing waters off Newfoundland and Laborador are some of the most closely watched in the world. On every community’s mind is the question: When will the fish come back? They watch the seals grow fat, their bank accounts grow lean and they want action. They want the seals to go.
Now that finally may happen. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) has just released a report entitled Towards Recovered and Sustainable Groundfish Fisheries in Eastern Canada. Though overfishing crashed the population of groundfish such as cod, haddock and flounder, the seals will pay.
To come up with their recommendations, the Council talked with industry, biologists, fishers and Aboriginal communities. Two things nearly everyone agreed on: Fisheries and Oceans Canada is taking too long to complete the Sustainable Fisheries Framework they hope will put the fishing industry back on its boats, and seals are eating the fish.
So the report calls on the government to complete its work and to become a whole lot better about working with the industry. One red flag is a warning “that the top-down, prescriptive nature of the Species at Risk Act will largely remove industry from participation in management of the resource, and will counter initiatives towards stewardship and co-management.”
The same warning appears any time an industry objects to government regulation of a resource. In this case, the Species at Risk Act is one small, government voice for endangered wildlife. The fishing industry’s earlier record with stewardship and co-management nearly wiped out the groundfish. If the fish are ever to recover, they need non-industry voices guarding their interests.
Stakeholders Hold Different Views
The complete report tells a broader story. When the fisheries were shut down, people assumed stocks would recover more quickly than they have. However, surveys by Fisheries and Oceans Canada have given little reason to hope a full-fledged fishing industry can operate in eastern Canada any time soon. That is hard news in a region where fishing is more than a way to make a living. It is a way of life.
So the FRCC encountered strong and differing opinions when they held open consultations. Section 4, which summarizes those consultations, is particularly fascinating. The brief text reveals disagreements among industry, non-industry and Aboriginal participants. Having participated in many community consultations, I recognized the tension in this paragraph:
“Some non-industry presentations called for more areas to be closed to fishing while many in the industry doubted the value of closed areas other than in special cases, such as the protection of sponges and corals.”
Killing Tens of Thousands of Seals As an Experiment
Since the purpose of the FRCC’s process was to develop recommendations for reviving fisheries, they clearly felt a need to propose something that could be acted on quickly. So while the report calls for an ecosystem science approach to rebuilding stock and developing management plans, it also tosses a fish to those who blame seals for the industry’s sluggish recovery: a massive seal cull.
This is not the first report to call for reducing seal populations. In 2007, the Gulf Groundfish Advisory Committee published its report on seal predation. The committee pointed out three problems with seals: predation, parasites and damage.
Seals eat groundfish so fishers understandably resent the competition for their catch. Grey seals carry a heavy load of seal worms. (So do harbour, grey and hooded seals, though to a lesser extent.) The worms infect groundfish and cost processors millions of dollars annually. Seals also damage fishing gear. Fish trapped in nets are irresistible to seals attracted by the plentiful meal. All of these factors led the committee to call for a 50% reduction in the seal population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Sable Island.
Four years later, the FRCC is reiterating that recommendation but upping the tally by another 20%, which means the culling of tens of thousands of seals. While acknowledging that scientific evidence of the seals’ impact on groundfish is lacking, the Council recommends a major cull, stating:
“It is still not clear whether seal predation is the most likely factor preventing recovery of other collapsed groundfish stocks. But it is apparent that well-controlled experimental reductions of seal numbers in specific areas, backed up by careful monitoring of groundfish population responses, are required to resolve untested scientific hypotheses about the effects of seals on groundfish population recovery, and to inform possible options for the control of seal predation.”
A Precautionary Approach to Reviving Fisheries
With images of bloodied and beaten fur seal pups already making Canada the butt of considerable international backlash, the report cautions that “mass removals” may lead to boycotting of Canadian seafood products. The FRCC proposes rebuilding the Canadian seal industry and developing markets for seal products, which they suggest will take several years.
In the meantime, they recommend a “precautionary approach” or PA. In this context, PA means not waiting to slaughter tens of thousands of seals until there is scientific consensus their sacrifice will bring back the groundfish.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada will likely agree with this approach. In May 2010, they published a report calling for the slaughter of 220,000 grey seals on Sable Island. The International Fund for Animal Welfare called it “absolutely appalling” and insisted “any plans to cull marine mammals should be subject to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Protocol for the Scientific Evaluation of Proposals to Cull Marine Mammals.”
A Different Precautionary Approach
The precautionary approach always seems to get twisted to support whatever it is we humans want to do. No one is consulting the seals.
A different interpretation of PA is particularly important in light of recent research that shows the entire food chain suffers when top predators are removed. Overfishing in the Black Sea led to eutrophication and an explosion of jellyfish. Shark fishing off the North Carolina coast wiped out “a century-old bay scallop fishery that supported the local community.” In the tropical Pacific, 10- to 100-fold increases in stingray catches coincided with 10-fold declines in their predators (tunas, billfishes and sharks).
None of these studies supports the killing tens of thousands of seals as a means of bringing back the groundfish. So let’s suggest a different precautionary approach, one that requires attention to the entire ecosystem before drawing the guns or raising the clubs.
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