GCIFA calls for seal population controls

CANSO — The head of the Guysborough County Inshore Fisherman’s Association (GCIFA) is calling on the federal government to bring in aggressive, new “controls” on millions of hungry grey and harp seals whose sheer numbers, she says, are weakening the east coast fishery.

GCIFA Executive Director Ginny Boudreau made the comment to The Journal in an interview after the release last week of the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans’ report, Sealing the Future, which criticized federal authorities for mismanaging the rising numbers of the animals over the years and called for an increase in their annual harvest.

“I support [the committee’s] findings,” she said. “[But] myself and others in the fishing industry don’t think the committee went far enough with its recommendations and they should have strongly advised population controls, along with the commercial harvesting strategy. There were [committee] presenters that stated that we have waited too long to respond to the increase in population of all species of seals for a commercial harvest to undo the imbalance in nature.”

Boudreau referred, specifically, to the impact on Atlantic mackerel, whose commercial and bait fisheries were suspended by DFO in 2022 until severely depleted stocks – attributed by federal authorities to both fishers and natural predators – recover.

While a modest “personal-use” bait fishery (use of mackerel to harvest other species, such as lobster) was restarted last week, the moratorium on the much larger commercial fishery (mackerel harvested for sale), with a reported 11,000 tonnes landed in 2021, remains in effect until at least the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Boudreau said, “Mackerel feeds the seals, whose population is now having such an effect... We can cull deer, but nobody can touch those seals.”

According to the report, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimates the population of Atlantic grey seals at 366,400, “which continues to increase.” Meanwhile, it reported, DFO pegs the Northwest Atlantic population (Eastern Canada and Western Greenland) of harp seals at 7.6 million in 2019, up from 6.8 million in 2017.

These numbers, the report stated, may reflect federal seal harvest quotas first introduced for Atlantic and Arctic regions in 1971 “amid concerns that the herds were being depleted” and widespread international pressure from animal rights groups on harvesting harp seal pups for their white pelts. Since then, more than 30 countries – including the United States and all of the European Union – have issued import bans on commercial seal products.

At the same time, it noted, “The number of seals harvested in Canada’s commercial fishery at present does not significantly impact the health of current seal populations... Between 2018 and 2022, only one per cent of the total allowable catch (TAC) was landed for the grey seal[s] and only seven per cent of the TAC was landed for the harp seal[s].”

It recommended that the federal government should counter “misinformation and disinformation about Canada’s seal populations, seal harvest and seal products industry by promoting credible sources of information... A bigger commercial harvest would benefit remote, coastal and Indigenous communities in the North and on the East Coast where seal harvesting holds deep social, cultural and economic importance.”

The report stopped short of blaming the growing seal population for undermining commercial fisheries, noting that committee presenters were not altogether clear on the subject: “The committee heard much conflicting testimony with regards to the effect seal populations are having on Canada’s fisheries, with some witnesses noting that seals are not considerable contributors to fish stock depletion and other witnesses explaining that they are.”

That confusion seems to run counter to a recent study by U.S. and Canadian marine scientists – originally reported by the CBC last month – that found that top natural predators, such as grey seals, consumed twice as much Atlantic mackerel as commercial fishers took home during the 10 years that preceded DFO’s 2022 suspensions.

“It’s huge that scientists are now considering the impact of [the more than] seven million seals in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the [nearly] 500,000 here in the Scotia-Fundy region,” Boudreau said. “It’s only ever been about the impact of the harvesters. As more accurate data comes in, I think we’re going to see the seals as the main predator.”

Boudreau noted that the restart of the mackerel bait fishery – which provides a 470-tonne quota released in two parts this spring and summer to give harvesters from different regions equitable access to Atlantic mackerel as the stock migrates through Atlantic Canadian and Quebec waters – is good news. “It lets my members, who are paying $1.65 per pound [buying mackerel bait], to catch mackerel and use it for their own personal use in their lobster, or crab or ground fish [harvesting]... It’s also fresh bait, so that improves the catches.”

Still, she said, the industry needs a more durable, longer-term approach.

“Fish harvesters have always advocated that the Canadian government support a commercial seal harvest and work with industry to develop markets. But we could never, ever have that. And now – even though we have repeatedly said that seal populations are depleting stocks at 100 times the rate commercial fishermen ever could – the population is just totally out of control... We’re beyond a harvest now. We need population control.”

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal