Slaughtering Seals As a Precautionary Approach


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.


Related Care2 Stories

Was the Baby Seal Rescued or Kidnapped?

Sharks and Other Predators Are Essential for Ocean Health

Loss of Top Predators Is “Humankind’s Most Pervasive Influence on Nature”

Photo from Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel, Second Photo from Sam Beebe, Third Photo from bikehikedive (nugun) via Flickr Creative Commons


Lorna C.
Lorna C4 years ago

Leave the fish for the inhabitants of the sea - end of


The small catches and depletion of fish is caused by overfishing which in turn is caused by human overpopulation. The Canadians are hollering that the seals are eating all of "their" fish as an excuse to kill seals. The Japanese are doing the same thing with whales and dolphins: Japan is getting very small catches due to overfishing/overpopulation but are blaming it on the "greedy" whales and dolphins eating all of "their" fish. Birth control bitches, birth control! There are just so many humans on this planet that the species we use for food cannot keep up with us because we are far outbreeding them. Blaming other species for the overconsumption of the fish is disingenuous and will not solve the problem. There are not too many seals or whales or dolphins; there are way too many of US, and until that problem is fixed, the puny fish catches will remain a problem, seals or no seals.

Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

N T.
Nancy Tomalty5 years ago

Canada needs to wake up and stop this erroneous approach to the depletion of cod. Stop killing the seals and find a better way to restore the cod.

Manel Dias
Manel Dias5 years ago

Canada is far behind when it comes to taking compassionate decisions on behalf of the Planet earth. Massive slaughter of seals in eastern coast lines have given Canada the name of one of the Cruelest Governing country in the world. No sympathy for the environement or the Animals, sea or land creatures. Canadians governing parties need to be educated in most of the current issues in respect of the Planet and it's inhibitants. This is 21st century. PM need to wake up and change the olden days brutal practises by culling innocent animals and need to introduce new laws to protect the seals in the east coasts. Shame on Canada for the way they massacre such defenceless animals in such brutal and Barbaric ways. Don't buy any products made in Canada which involvs body part from those majestic seals.

Virginia G.

Excuse me but let's not forget that the seals home is the sea. It provides for their every need. It is not them who plunder the oceans but us who in fact don't even have the right to be there. We live on land and these **************** people are tooo lazy to plant vegetables and fruit trees.
Canadians you are already thought of as a disgusting country for not protecting the seals - get up off your lazy bums and get planting!!!

Sandra K.
Ruxandra K6 years ago

Drastic reduction in Human Overpopulation is the only answer to this ecological ,conservational and environmental collapse.

We are living much, much longer and we breed much,much more. Plus, the mortality rates are lower.Human population is increasing now at exponential rates, world population has doubled since 1970.

Randy Robertson
Randy Robertson6 years ago

The seals used to be controlled by the orcas (killer whales). We put the killer whales in Zoos. The seal population exploded here on the Pacific...parasites exploded in the bottom fish...parasites moving through the food chain. Over fishing of herring for the roe. So called excess roe that broke loose and ended up high on the beach, rotted, and with each high tide went back to sea as fertilizer, caused the seaweeds to flourish...hidey holes for juvenile fishes and returning adult salmon. Now we have a salmon problem, fewer and stunted seaweeds and the seal invading the tidal part of the rivers with impunity and the salmon in trouble, herring in trouble, orcas in trouble, seaweeds in trouble, and damn if I'll eat sushi again. It's kind of freaky finding a fish tapeworm hanging out your ass about a foot after your morning constitutinal!

Izabela H.
Izabela Henning6 years ago

I am out of words. So how it was going for centuries when there were more seals and the fishes did not perished? How all the species used to survive one next to the other? May be because ther were less humans on this crowdy earth.

Sandra Downie
Sandra Downie6 years ago

My question, or one of them anyway, is why isn't there more publicity on this type of horrible, unecessary massacre? Seals slaughtered, dolphins murdered, horses cruelly rounded up & put into horrific "holding facilities", wolves & pups being shot and/or gassed, and most of this conducted by our federal government, with the apparent approval of our President! Why isn't the public irate over these horrible, cruel acts? They aren't being committed by one or two people, but acts committed regularly with the full approval of, or by, government officials. Has humanity reached it's lowest level? I can't even imagine how things can get much worse.