published in The Animals Voice
Magazine, Winter 2007
the Seals of Nova Scotia
MACKENZIE Grey Seal Conservation Society
ago, humans drove the common Atlantic
grey seal to near extinction. Targeted because of it size and availability,
the grey seal went the way of the great whales and walrus, all but disappearing
in the 18th century quest for blubber. Grey seals never recovered from
this assault, because they were treated as pest by the fishing industry.
During the twentieth century, grey seals were culled regularly, often
with whole pupping colonies slaughtered. This kept grey seal numbers
low on both sides of the North Atlantic.
disapproval of seal hunting in the 1980s, grey seal culls were stopped
and Canada ended a bounty paid to fisherman for grey seal jawbones.
Grey seals have since made somewhat of a comeback, although the current
total population size is less than a quarter of the original. Grey
seals run into conflict with fisherman, and are often killed accidentally
by fishing gear. Fisherman also shoot thousands of grey seals each year
in a "nuisance control" seal hunt that is accelerating, but
remains exempt from human slaughter rules.
state of the ocean today, plus new science clarifying how it works,
provide compelling reasons to protect, rather than exploit or cull,
the recovering grey seals. But the old "seals are pests" idea
dies hard. The
fishing industry insists that large-scale grey seals culling should
now be reinstated, claiming seals are "consuming" too much
fish from depleted fish stocks, and that seals are destroying the last
remnant of a ruined industry.
in Atlantic Canada are demanding removal of the bulk of the grey seal
population "in self-defence," and public sympathy seems to
be on their side. Seals are protected in the United States, but fishermen
in New England are now also demanding a new grey seals cull. This is
echoed, too, in the U.K., Ireland, and the Baltic region. The
numbers of grey seals potentially killed are well below the millions
slaughtered in Canada's infamous harp seal hunt, and most conservation
organizations do not see the grey seal hunt as a problem. There has
been little opposition to the new grey seal cull, which entails a revived
commercial hunt in Canada, where grey seal product development and marketing
small non-profit group was formed to oppose the hunt in Nova Scotia,
the Grey Seal Conservation Society (GSCS).
The society aims to inform the public and lobby the Canadian government
to stop seal hunting for the sake of the ocean. Animal welfare concerns
apply to killing grey seals, but the GSCS focuses opposition to the
seal cull on ocean conservation grounds. The argument is that the natural
fish predators as a group are now in serious trouble, that these types
of animals are essential for fish health and survival, and that all
fish-dependent ocean animals stand to suffer if we continue to make
the wrong "management" moves, such as culling seals, and if
we persist in old-style decision-making.
seals, many other animals are at risk, from whales to seabirds, not
to mention the fish themselves. Managers must now consider the big picture,
all ecosystem elements, all changes, and everything we know about how
nature maintains a fish-producing ocean.
today inhabit a very different sea from that of their ancestors, an
ocean vastly transformed by human impact, mainly by fishing. Recently,
alarmed by crashing fisheries, scientists in Atlantic Canada intently
analyzed ocean changes and uncovered some major surprises: (1) Seals
and other natural predators are not parasites the "damage"
fish, but the opposite is true: natural predators are important stabilizers
that support fish health and ocean health; (2) The parasite is us: centuries
of human fishing has unexpectedly damaged the basic capacity of the
ocean to support fish; broad negative changes cannot all be explained
away by "pollution" and "global warming" because
human fishing is also implicated in causing them; recent ocean food
web changes are "catastrophic," with life in the sea now "devolving"
while overall ocean productivity is down.
unexpected finding is that human fishing damaged not only the fish that
were targeted directly, but also the ocean itself. This is a huge new
insight. It is of global importance that ocean manages now "get"
this, and that they react appropriately. Today
impaired ocean produces fewer fish and the general health of fish is
poor. Many fish, including cod, are now found to be starving. Another
difference affecting today's grey seals is the lack of sharks and other
big fish, a change that leaves seals as the only large fish-eating animals
still surviving, and maybe doing so rather precariously, in a weakened
work virtually alone to keep up a critical ocean housekeeping role:
eating and rapidly recycling fish that need to be eaten. These include
young fish who are still conceived in numbers far above what can be
supported by their environment, along with older warn out or "spent"
adult fish. Since
the dawn of time (for fish, that was about 400 million years ago), they
have coexisted with predators who ate and recycled them in a pattern
that helped maintain fish health and boost ocean productivity. In this
ancient, mutually beneficial "predator-prey" relationship,
large "voracious" fish-eaters of one type or another always
shared the sea with fish. A sea full of fish conditioned the planet
for ages before humans evolved. The fish-supporting role of natural
ocean predators has not been replaced by human fisheries. Instead, the
fishing industry has eroded the food base for fish.
of facts might lead a highly evolved intelligent species, perhaps even
our own, to wonder whether, if there were no ocean predators at all,
fish might just disappear altogether. If this is possible should we
not a least preserve what fish predators we can today, given the degraded
condition of the sea? If not, might
humans soon push ocean life back to a semblance of the pre-fish Cambrian
era? With nothing but plankton and primitive bottom creatures in
some areas, and dead zones in others? How would this affect the biosphere?
a shift like that would surely cause atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
to rise, although this may seem a digression. However, science journals
have recently hinted the unthinkable; that fishing and whaling may have
slowed ocean nutrient cycling enough to affect the ocean-atmosphere
carbon balance. Given the recent findings of the Canadian scientists,
why allow any killing of seals, whales or other natural fish predators
why fish themselves are in such poor health? Scientists tell us that
starved fish suggests a "lack of predation" as well as food
it may seem a paradox, it is now clear that more natural predators will
be beneficial to fish, and fewer predators detrimental, and that the
same applies to ocean life overall. Seal hunts or culls can worsen the
trouble today, and such activities can only now be planned by people
who deny current ecological realities and ignore current scientific
understanding. Canada ignored its own scientists before the infamous
1992 crash of the Newfoundland cod fishery. Stung by the consequences,
the country then announced its determination never to that again. Canada's
Ocean Act was passed in 1997, guaranteeing that ocean health would not
be sacrificed for any industry.
Canada's resolve is tested, because Canadian scientists recently discovered
that commercial fishing can cause, and indeed has already caused, profound
damage to the workings of the ocean food web, and that large fish-eaters
like seals unexpectedly work to the advantage of fish. Has Canada changed
its fisheries management in response to this new information? Has the
seal hunt been stopped at least? No, it seems nothing has changed, but
why not? Could important scientific conclusions still be hushed when
their management implications clash with the goals of the fishing industry?
How else can Canada now plan to cull grey seals, the only natural fish-eater
that has managed to make a partial recovery in a sea severely damaged
do more than glance at recent headlines: "Grey Sea's Eat Tons of
Fish!" and "Fisherman's Enemy Number 1" And reasons to
oppose the grey seal hunt go beyond cruelty to animals. Preserving the
healthy ocean is everyone's concern, and once all the cards are laid
on the table, this should provide common ground for deciding how humans
should manage seals today: these perfectly evolved fish-eating animals
must now be protected as precious elements in our basic biological life
support system. Many people have always known this intuitively, but
it can now be added that science has connected the dots to the point.
naturally positive environmental role of seals is added to the rational
for protests against seal hunting, this should increase support for
ending the hunts. Hopefully, this can help reorient human efforts toward
rebuilding and maintaining an ocean that supports not only primitive
sea life such as bacteria and shellfish, but that also supports the
healthy survival of more modern ocean animals, such as fish with their
lively suite of living natural predators.