Article published in The Animals Voice Magazine, Winter 2007


Killing the Seals of Nova Scotia

By DEBBIE MACKENZIE Grey Seal Conservation Society (GSCS)


Centuries 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.

Amid public 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.

The degraded 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.

Fishermen 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 has begun.

A 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.

Besides 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.

Grey seals 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.

The major 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 sea.

Seals now 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.

This set 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?

For starters, 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 shortage.

Although 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.

But now 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 by fishing?

We must 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.

If the 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.