Science has been cancelled: Health of our oceans & harp seals sacrificed for east coast votes

There is a DFO letter making the rounds online, defending the 2012 harp seal Total Allowable Catch (TAC) which was set at an unsustainably high 400,000 last week.  The letter is signed by Morley Knight, Director-General of Resource Management at DFO, and attempts to mislead convince the public the TAC was set “in accordance with the internationally recognized precautionary approach.” 

It’s not surprising DFO has gone into repair mode in response to the bashlash to the news the Fisheries Minister had ignored the advice of his own scientists and had set the 2012 harp seal Total Allowable Catch at the request of sealing industry executives.  Both IFAW and HSI condemned the TAC.  My own letter, representing Atlantic Canadians, was published in four newspapers.

Nor is it surprising a government bureaucrat signed the editorial defending the TAC; it is highly unlikely any of the ignored scientists would agree to put their name on such a work of fiction.

Mr. Knight seems to be in denial of two concrete irrefutable facts: 

(1)  The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat concluded in its most recent Science Advisory Report the harp seal herd is in decline and the 2012 TAC should not exceed 300,000, as anything higher would not respect DFO’s management plan; and

(2)  DFO clearly stated the 400,000 TAC was guided in part by “the unanimous recommendation of industry representatives.”

Setting TACs to appease the sealing industry while ignoring scientific advice is not “in accordance with the internationally recognized precautionary approach,” although Mr. Knight seems to expect the public to believe it is.

DFO has a long history of basing conservation decisions based on political expediency rather than science.  DFO mismanaged cod into commercial extinction and has consistently failed to protect endangered species such as porbeagle shark and sockeye salmon for “socio-economic” reasons. Now it is placing the future of harp seals at risk.

Sealer about to beat to death 2- or 3-week old pup still almost completely covered in whitecoat Photo: Sheryl Fink/IFAW 2012

I was reading an article in the Ottawa Citizen this morning detailing how the government’s failure to set start dates for the commercial seal hunt in Newfoundland was causing wide-spread concern for the problems it would pose for rural towns along the east coast.  Featured in the article were doomsday-style quotes by Canadian Sealers Association executive Frank Pinhorn and Bonavista Mayor Betty Fitzgerald.  There were warnings about rapidly expanding hordes of voracious harp seals patrolling the coastline devouring all the cod and dire predictions that if the the hordes weren’t ”controlled” (read: slaughtered via club, hakapik and rifle) the fish would disappear and so would all the jobs on the east coast.

It is difficult to discern if Pinhorn and Fitzgerald are honestly deluded about seals and cod, or are guilty of wilfully spreading misinformation. In any event, both are incorrect in their recent statements to media.

Pinhorn speaks of the “growing seal population,” claiming it is at a record-high of nine to 10 million, while Fitzgerald insists the seal population must be controlled to protect fish stocks. Both Pinhorn and Fitzgerald need to read the latest Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat’s Science Advisory Report in which DFO scientists Mike Hammill and Garry Stenson advise the harp seal population is declining, with a current population of approximately 7 million individuals, and accordingly, the Total Allowable Catch should be reduced by 25%.  There has never been credible science supporting these wild claims that seals are preventing fish stocks from rebounding after years of gross human overfishing.  In fact, for those who bother investigating the issue, there is an emerging wealth of information to the contrary.

Fitzgerald and Pinhorn are guilty of the sort of irresponsible scaremongering that promotes the misconception seals must be culled to protect fish stocks. In truth, science indicates seals play an important role in our complex marine ecosystem and should be protected for the overall health of our oceans. Fitzgerald and Pinhorn would do well to quit the melodrama and stick to the facts.

In terms of claims that “lack of an April seal hunting season could pose a problem for rural towns along the coast,” the only problem the cancellation of the 2012 Newfoundland harp seal hunt poses is the sealers would miss out on their annual beer-swilling baby seal-bashing social event.  As one sealer told Paul Watson years ago, “Every year we gets to go out on the ice, get away from the old lady, drink beer with the boys and whack seals” and as sealer Desmond Adams told media a few years ago, “We all go out for the love of it rather than the money, which isn’t there anymore.”  This is not a commercial seal hunt or a hunt for subsistence – this is a yearly social event for people who love beating and shooting to death screaming seal pups.  And Canadian taxpayers are footing the bill.  That, to me, is a very real problem.

Canadian Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield has finally broken his silence and responded to leading scientists’ criticism regarding  a proposed grey seal cull with a shocking revelation: “Seals aren’t vegetarians or vegans.”

Minister's shocking revelation: "Seals aren't vegetarians or vegans."

Yes, those sage words were uttered by our very own Minister of Few Words this afternoon to a Canadian Press journalist.  The Minister had remained strangely silent while the furor grew over the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council’s recommendations for a massive grey seal cull (unlike his predecessor Gail “Media Whore” Shea who loved talking to the media to the point of fabricating announcements).  After reading Ashfield’s quotes online today, I personally think he should have remained silent a little longer.

Yes, Minister, seals do eat fish.  So do other marine predators, such as whales, sharks and dolphins.  Are you suggesting we should kill those species as well, just in case they’re to blame?  After all, you don’t know for sure seals are responsible for the failure of Gulf of St. Lawrence fish stocks to rebound.  You just think they’re the “most likely” cause.  So if the idea is to kill a massive number of seals as an experiment to see if it helps fish stocks, why not kill a massive amount of all predators in the oceans and really double your chances of success!  Not scientific enough for you?  It’s about as scientific as taking your science advice from a bunch of knuckle-dragging fishermen who “clean up real good” to sit in front of the Senate Committee and lie their asses off.

But I digress.  Shortly after the FRCC released its report which recommended the removal of 140,000 grey seals in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence over a five year period, two of Canada’s leading marine biologists spoke out against the scheme, branding it politically motivated and scientifically irresponsible.  Hal Whitehead, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax specializing in the study of whales said:

Before humans started industrial fishing, there were large populations of seals and of cod. Clearly, they can coexist perfectly well. … It appears to me that politicians are playing into this largely irrational hatred of seals to make it look like they’re doing something.

Boris Worm, a Dalhousie biology professor who studies marine biodiversity, told media former fisheries minister Gail Shea had spoken in favour of a cull in 2009, and federal scientists have since been pressured to justify that decision.  He said:

It was something that was announced before the science was heard, and then a meeting was convened to produce the science to support that decision,” he said, referring to a series of scientific workshops held last fall.  To me, as a scientist, that’s not acceptable.

On September 26, 2011 an open letter was sent to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, signed by six marine scientists pointing out that the proposed greal seal cull is not supported by science and could have unexpected disastrous effects on our oceans.  The signees urged the Minister to meet with independent scientists to discuss the folly of approving a large-scale cull of grey seals.

Minister Ashfield’s reaction is tantamount to a slap in the face to these leading scientists.  Obviously the Minister would rather take his science advice from a bunch of biased yes-men and fishermen hand-picked by the Fisheries Minister to sit on the board of the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council.  No surprise there, however – Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans is notorious for making decisions based on political expediency and economics rather than conservation.

And Minister, please remind me, because I’m still confused on this point – how do you hope to pay for this cull?  The cost of such a large-scale slaughter will be substantial and DFO is currently cutting its budget and slashing science programs.  Oh, how silly of me, of course, the Canadian taxpayer will foot the bill for this make-work project for disgruntled sealers.  Of course, the taxpayers will unwillingly hand over the cash so the sealers can happily bash and shoot in the skulls of nursing whitecoats and their mothers, and the Harper government can buy all the sealing/fishing votes for the next election.  And what do the Canadian taxpayers get?  Shafted.  Again.  Of course.

I’m no scientist, but even I know that to focus on a simplistic prey-predator model such as cod-seal is a recipe for disaster.  Our marine ecosystem is a complex food web and removing a large number of one species could have catastrophic results.  If I thought there was merit in killing off a large number of one species as an experiment to see if the desired results could be achieved, I would’ve called for a cull of pro-sealing politicians a long time ago!  ;)