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!  ;)

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced DFO’s Fisheries Management Decisions 2009 to very little fanfare this week.  Well, no fanfare really, which is odd considering the bombshells contained therein.

1.     Closure of Southern Gulf Cod Fishery

Firstly, DFO is re-closing the directed commercial cod fishery in the southern Gulf.  Cod stocks are in such dire straits in the southern Gulf that all commercial fishing must cease.  Despite grave concerns, however, the recreational cod fishery (also known as the fun fishery) will be re-opened for four weeks. 

There are arguments that neither the northern nor the southern Gulf should have been re-opened for fishing in the first place.  DFO has consistently ignored advice and warnings from its scientists and have made decisions based on political expediency rather than conservation concerns.  Here’s a bit of a timeline of DFO’s mismanagement of groundfish stocks in the northern and southern Gulf of St. Lawrence: 

Originally, commercial cod fishing in the northern Gulf was closed in 1992 and the southern Gulf was closed in 1993.  After a moratorium of a few years, in response to reports of slight improvements in some cod stocks in 1999, a directed commercial fishery was re-opened with a take of 30,000 tonnes.   The following year the take was lowered to 20,000 tonnes.  In 2001 the take was lowered again to 15,000 tonnes.  Not surprisingly, a 2002 report to DFO revealed groundfish stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence had failed to show real signs of improvement.  A further report in March 2003 indicated that the slight improvement of groundfish stocks which had been reported in the late 1990s had reversed.   In April 2003 the Minister of Fisheries announced the closure of the cod fisheries.

In May 2004 then Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan announced his intention to re-open the northern Gulf with maximum takings of 3,500 tonnes, and the southern Gulf with maximum takings of 3,000 tonnes.

In 2005 Regan increased both TACS for the 2006-2007 season, setting a TAC of 5,000 in the northern Gulf and 4,000 in the southern Gulf.  Regan explained, “These TACS are cautious while these stocks continue to recover.”

In 2006 then Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn announced a TAC of 6,000 tonnes for the northern Gulf and 4,000 tonnes for the southern Gulf.  He also announced the re-opening of the recreational fishery for five  weeks, with daily individual limits of five cod per day and 15 cod per boat.  The recreational fishery had been closed since 2001.  Said Hearn, “I’m confident this is the right path forward.  Apparently not.

In 2007 the northern Gulf TAC was increased to 7,000 tonnes.  DFO announced that in response to scientific assessments indicating that cod populations in the southern Gulf had fallen to a record-low level, the TAC was being significantly reduced to 2,000 tonnes.  Despite concerns, the recreational fishery was opened again for a period of five weeks as was the stewardship cod fishery with an individual quota of 2,500 lbs.  Faced with reports of gross over-fishing during the 2006 recreational fishery, Hearn responded that he was not concerned.

In 2008 Hearn announced that in response to a “slight upward trend in abundance and improved survival for the Northern cod stock”, individual quotas for the Northern cod stewardship fishery was increased by 750 lbs to 3,250 lbs per license holder.  This represented a whopping 30% increase in quota from 2007.  The recreational cod fishery in the southern Gulf was once again opened for 2008 despite conservation concerns.

Given the above, how can the government point the finger of blame for declining fish stocks at grey seals? 

2.    Large-scale cull of grey seals

Claiming “the department’s most recent peer-reviewed scientific assessment indicated that grey seal predation appears to be a significant component of the very high mortality rates of cod in the southern Gulf,” Fisheries Minister Gail Shea has directed the Department to ensure the targeted removal of grey seals preying on southern Gulf cod.  This past March, DFO had raised the grey seal TAC to 50,000.

The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat in its 2008 Report ‘Science Advice on Harvesting of Northwest Atlantic Grey Seals in 2009’ published in April 2009 stated evidence of the impact of grey seal predation on depleted stocks is inconclusive.  Further, the report of the recent DFO National Workshop on the Impacts of Seals on Fish Populations in Eastern Canada stated there is no analysis to suggest fewer seals would have a positive effect on fish stock recovery.

 

Why, then, is the Minister determined to direct a large-scale cull of grey seals?  Simply put, she is buying the votes of Atlantic fishers in preparation for an upcoming federal election.

 

Once again, DFO is using seals as scapegoats to hide its own incompetence.  DFO re-opened the southern Gulf commercial cod fishery against warnings from its own scientists. Now, to avert attention from its mismanagement and to placate fishers who are once again prevented from fishing in that area, it is declaring grey seals guilty of necessitating the re-closure.

 

Grey seals in three areas will be targeted – Gulf of St. Lawrence, Eastern shore and Sable Island.  Sable Island seals had in the past been protected by the federal government, but fishing interests have been lobbying the government for several years, aided by provincial Fisheries Minister Ron Chisholm, for access to the herd which is the largest breeding colony in the world.  The bulk of grey seals killed will be on Sable Island.

 

How quickly things change.  Just a short four months ago DFO mouthpiece Gus van Helvoort assured media that DFO was not considering a grey seal hunt on Sable Island despite repeated calls from sealers and Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Ron Chisholm.  At the same time, Ron Chisholm was assuring media that Sable Island grey seals would not be culled.  Yeah, like we believed that one…

 

The fishing industry is actually calling for a 50% reduction in grey seal populations in five years.  Such a reduction rate, if approved, would likely catapult grey seals onto the IUCN Red List as endangered! 

 

In Canada, important decisions affecting the health of our oceans are made based on political expediency rather than sound science.  As we have seen in the past, fishermen generally get what they want, using their votes as leverage.  As a top predator in our oceans, seals play a vital role.  To remove large numbers of grey seals is incredibly irresponsible and will further ravage an already frail eco-system severely damaged by human over-exploitation.

 

I’ll have more to say about this planned large-scale slaughter of grey seals in coming days.