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 History of Grey Seals in Atlantic Canada

The following is excerpted from "Sea of Slaughter" (1984) by Farley Mowat,
and is reproduced here with permission:

Dotars and Horseheads continued...

It was not to be. Now that these two species were no longer seen as a source of profits, human preception of them changed and they began to be perceived as a threat to profits. By eaarly in the twentieth century, the once-astronmical profusion of Atlantic salmon was diminishing so rapidly under the pressure of the enormous carnage visited upon it that fishing interests belatedly began to be alarmed. Soon they were bringing powerful pressure to bear on provincial and federal politicains to take measures to halt the decline-so long, of course, as there was no interference with the God-given rights of the fishing industry and of the wealthy and influential sport fishermen to continue killing all the salmon they themselves desired.

The politicians did as they often do: they ordered teir minions to find an appropriate villian to blame for the salmon crisis-preferably one that could be savaged with impunity, while absolving the real culprits of any responsibility for the consequences of their greed.

The dotar came conveniently to hand. Seals were already stigmatized as competitors to fisherman, and the public had no need to know what government experts knew full well: that dotars seldom eat free-swimming salmon, if only because it is difficult to catch such swift and agile prey.

In 1927, the federal government of Canada officially condemned the dotars as pernicious and destructive vermin; charged them with wreaking havoc on the salmon; and placed a bounty on their heads. The initial $5 bounty was, for its time, very generous, being more than a dotar had ever been worth commerically. In order to collect it a hunter had only to bring the "muzzle" of a seal to a Fisheries warden or other local official. Most of these gentlemen were quite unable to ascertain whether the bloody lump of fur and gristle submitted to them was the nose of a dotar or that of some other species. In consequence, the bounty hunters were soon killing any and all seals, including any remnants of the horsehead nation they could find.

The war on dotars turned most able-bodied male costal dwellers into bounty hunters, either as a rewarding pastime or as a serious means of increasing their incomes. The onset of the Great Depression, and the economic misery it inflicted on eastcoast fisherman, gave even greater impetus to what soon became a general anti-seal crusade. The results were devastating for the seals. By 1939 extensive stretches of the Canadian and adjacent U.S. coastline had been so denuded that some fisherman were actually complaining they could no longer find a seal to kill for the table.

Nevertheless, a scattering of both species did manage to survive in the more remote and isolated regions until the onset of World War II gave them a breathing and breeding space. They made the most of the interlude, and by 1945 there may have been as many as 2,000-3,000 horseheads in existence together with some tens of thousands of dotars, and both speciees were attempting to recolonize their ancestral ranges.

This was not to be allowed. If there had ever been any thought given to ending the unholy war against the seals, it came to nothing in view of the political fact that east-coast fisherman had come to regard the seal bounty as a kind of permanent subsidy. To take it from them would have been to risk losing voted. So not only was it retained, it was doubled. However, the $10 payment was made dependent on presentation of a dotar lower jaw-a change deemed necessary by the discovery that some enterprising bounty hunters had for years been manufacturing seal muzzles from other seal parts. an unanticipated results followed from this change. Because the jaw of an adult horsehead was recognizably larger than that of a dotar, adult horseheads ceased to be of interest to bounty hunters and the horsehead populations continued slowly to increase.

Dean Fisher's 1949 rediscovery of the horsehead was not greeted with delight by the mandarins of the Department of Fisheries in Ottawa. And the futher discovery during the succeeding two decades that horseheads were actually becoming more numerous brought consternation. As an employee of the department remembers: "It was a bit of a shocker. We'd written the grey seal off and figured the harbour seal was on the way out, which what the industry was after. The grey comeback posed a problem. It took a while before we found the solution."

It is a fine, crisp February daay in the here and now. A big helicopter hovers above a rocky islet set in a glittering expanse of fragmented sea ice a few miles off the Nova Scotia coast. Scatterd across the dark rock, more than a hundred ivory-white seal pups stare in dumb amazement at the thundering apparition hanging over them. For their place beside the pups and from steaming leads between the offshore floes, the gleaming heads of scores of parent horseheads rear back in apprehension.

The helicopter slides down a shaft of air and lands. Doors are flung open. Bulking huge in military-style parakas, several men leap to the frozen ground, led by two uniformed officers of the Environment Canada's Conservation and Protection Branch. All six are armed either with heavy-calibre rifles or "regulation" sealing clubs.

They spread out rapidly, running to get between the seals and the ice-rimmed shore. Mother seals hump nervously toward the frozen sea, turn back toward their mewing pups, then mill in indecision until the staccato roar of rifle fire sends then into sudden panic. A barrage of soft-nosed bullets slams into passive flesh. Some wounded females break through to the shore, lurch convulsively into the leads, and vanish into the dark depths. Others die upon the islet-some still suckling their young.

The pups have little enough time to react to the crimsoning of their small world. A new sound intrudes itself between the now-scattered rifle shots-a sodden thunk...thuck...thuck...a sickening mallet-into-melon kind of sound, as club-wielding officers and hired sealers methodically smash the skulls of every pup they can find.

The operation is conducted with precision and dispatch by men well-practised at their trade. Hidden from the public eye, they have been conducting such search-and-destroy-missions against horeshead rookeries since 1967. Every year since then, just two months before the internationally infamous slaughter of harp seals in Canadian waters begins, these employees of the federal government of Canada have been busy waging a sercet war of extermination against the horsehead seal. They do the job on behalf of what is now the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. They are part of the "solution" to the problem posed by the return of the grey seal from the brink of extinction.

Only five significant horsehead breeding rookeries survive in all of North America, and all come under Canadian jurisdiction. They are on Amet, Camp, and Hut Islands along the coasts of Nova Scotia; on offshore Sable Island; and on the pack ice that gathers in the Northumberland Straight. the later site seems to be a new development, the result of desperate efforts by seals that once bred on islands off the west Cape Breton coast to find a whelping place that will not be turned into a charnel yard by the Conservation and Protection Branch.A recent rookery on Deadsman Island in the Magdalen archipelago has now been virtually exterminated. There is a relic breeding population of grey seals in the Muskeget Island area near Cape Cod, but only eleven pups have been recorded since 1964.

In 1981, I visited Hut Island, off the south coast of Cape Breton, and found its barren surface carpeted with seal bones and decaying carasses. Most were the remains of horsehead pups, but many werer those of adults, presumably nursing females. All had died at the practised hands or under the direction of Conservation and Protection officers who have visited Hut Island every winter for the past seventeen years and have destroyed virtually every pup born there during that time. With one exception, the same scene of mayhem has been repeated annually at all the other rookeries up to and including 1983, although the one on the shifting ice of Northumberland Strait has occasionally escaped detection by spotting planes and helicopters.

Only on Sable, a hundred miles out to sea, has a horsehead colony been permitted to bear and rear its young in relative security. Relative, because even this remote site is disrupted at the whelping time by government biologists who for many years branded all the pups they could catch and are still tagging them. Mortality amongst the pups from shock, infection, or due to abandonment by their mothers has been high; but this is not all the Sable colony has had to endure. Additional pups and adults are regularly killed to provide scientific specimens. Up to the spring of 1984, 865 horseheads had been "taken" for scientific purposes.

The Sable colony is permitted to survive partly because it serves as a research labaratory where scientists can accumulate data for the publications upon which their fames and fortunes largely depend. However, the island also happens to loom large in the public eye because of finds of natural gas in its vicinity and because of its famous herd of wild horses. The kind of serect butchery visited on the other horsehead rookeries could not easily be concealed on Sable and would be sure to provoke a furious outcry from conservationists. Still, such a prospect may not be of great moment to the Fisheries and Oceans potentates who have now authorized a "controlled cull" of the horseheads on the island at some as yet unspecified date, presumably at a time when puplic attention is directed elsewhere.

The rationale for this projected action is that the seal population on Sable is increasing. No recognition is made of the fact that the increase in more apparent than real, resulting in part at the least from the arrival on Sable's beaches of many adults that have been forced to abandon their mainland rookeries under pain of death.

" Controlled cull" is surely one of the most abhorrent of the newspeak phrases devised by "wildlife and resource managers" in order to conceal the true intentions of their political and commerical masters. As applied to the horsehead, it is a revoltingly cynical deception, since it actually means an uncontrolled slaughter directed to the effective extirpation of the species in Canadian waters. A perusal of Fisheries and Oceans' own internal statistics makes this grimly clear. since the beginning of the "controlled cull" in1967, I calculate that at least 90 percent of all horsehead pups known to have been born outside of Sable have been butchered by the quaintly named Conservation and Protection Branch. Between 1967 and 1983, more than 16,000 pups and 4,000 associated adults were admittedly destroyed in raids on the rookeries.

The reality behind the deception is so atrocious as to challenge credulity. How could an gency of a civilized government engage in such a blatant attemp at biocide? What good or useful purpose could it possibly serve?

When I asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for an explanation, the essence of the reply contained this chilling statement couched in the new jargon: "Seals inhibit the maximization of fisheries growth potential, adversely affecting rational harvesting of these natural resources and the maximization of a healthy economy. such negative-flow factors must be dealt with by scientifically validated management programmes such as the one we are engaged in."

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