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Science, stigma and the future of seals

Minister of Fisheries Joyce Murray (left) and Minister of Rural Economic Development Gudie Hutchings discuss the seal report on Thursday, May 12. – © Jaymie L. White

By Jaymie L. White

Special to Wreckhouse Press

WEST COAST – At an event held at Barry Group Inc. in Corner Brook, the oldest fish harvesting plant in the province, on Thursday morning, May 12, Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, and Gudie Hutchings, Minister of Rural Economic Development, discussed the Atlantic Seal Science Task Team (ASSTT) Report and plans to move forward.

Murray said the task team was launched on Mar. 5, 2020, to hear from the fishing industry and other stakeholders about the science needed to better understand Atlantic seal populations and their role in the ecosystem.

“We asked the task team to provide input on future priorities for seal science activities and opportunities to increase the fishing industry’s involvement in seal science projects. This task team was made up of members with a broad range of perspectives, expertise, and experience in the Atlantic fisheries. The team reviewed existing scientific information, heard from seal science researchers and representatives from the fishing industry, and received perspectives from the public and others who submitted input.”

The report released listed the conclusions made in response to the information obtained during the study and offered nine recommendations for moving forward.

The recommendations include:

• DFO should urgently work towards addressing gaps in seal diet information throughout their range and throughout the year

• DFO should work towards determining harp and grey seal distribution and migration patterns throughout the year

• DFO should work towards better understanding the relationship between seals and the dynamics of important fish stocks and the marine ecosystem as a whole

• DFO should consider undertaking research on seal species other than harp and grey seals, particularly with regards to their roles in the ecosystem

• DFO should establish and permanently fund a social sciences research unit to complement natural science research

• DFO should take advantage of opportunities to increase sampling by working with members of industry and other potential partners

• DFO should establish a multi-stakeholder, externally facilitated, seal science forum

• DFO should work towards accessing additional scientific capacity

• Improve seal depredation research.

Glen Blackwood, co-chair of the seal task team, said the reason they were created was to bridge the gap between what the science and industry are saying in respect to the impact seals have on the fishing industry.

“The science is saying it’s not having an impact on the ecosystem and the industry is sending in pictures of seal stomachs being opened up. There’s underwater video being collected, belly feeding of seals in the offshore area, so we were trying to figure out why the two views were different.”

Blackwood believes the gap is largely driven by the fact that most of the stomach samples collected in 2J3KL, the Northeast coast, in the 1990’s doesn’t accurately represent the fish stocks in the area currently as there wasn’t a lot of cod or capelin there at that time.

“Most of what was found in seal stomachs was Arctic cod, so when people say ‘well, seals feed on Arctic cod,’ well, yes they did, but that ecosystem has shifted. DFO surveys don’t find Arctic cod there anymore.”

Blackwood said what they’re recommending, which was also recommended by the Harris Panel in the 1990’s, is that a comprehensive feeding study be done on harp seals and grey seals, both in and out of their season.

“This province is very seasonal and there’s certain times of the year it’s very abundant and certain times of the year it’s very bleak. From the information we got from industry, there are seals feeding at different times on different populations.”

Hutchings said DFO and many other departments, were gutted by the previous government, so there is a void in the science.

“DFO has got to play catch up. It’s reports like this and getting their house in order to work, as the minister said, with other groups. How do we now work across organizations, across governments? We have to remember they were gutted for 13-15 years before that, so there’s a void in the science. You can’t replace that, but now they’ve got extra work to do to make sure we do have all the information to make the great decisions going forward and make sure we’ve got a strong and safe fishery, ecosystem, and markets around the world.”

Murray said it is known that seals eat fish, so that’s the reason behind the need for better understanding of the impact they have on the existing fish stocks, and this report starts the conversation on how they can move forward and address the many concerns.

In response to the recommendations listed in the report, as a first step, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will host a seal summit in St. John’s in the Fall to broaden engagement on Atlantic seals and bring stakeholders together to discuss approaches for science, market development, and management.

“We will be inviting folks with different perspectives, scientists, commercial fishers, Indigenous groups, provincial and territorial representatives, academia, environmental non-government organizations and more together for discussion and collaboration. This is just one next step. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is committed to maintaining existing markets for Canadian seal products and supporting the development of potential new markets.”

Murray said she sees this as a harvest based on science that will require the development of potential markets for seal products.

“My goal will be 100 per cent utilization of anything that we harvest from the seas. There is work that has to be done to develop those markets and those products.”

Hutchings said Newfoundlanders and Labradorians need to stand up and be proud of the sealing industry to help combat the negative stigma that can be attached to it.

“It was one of the primary sources of fishing for our forefathers,” said Hutchings. “We all have a job to do to talk about the impact, but more importantly, the markets and the small business growth.”

Hutchings said that as the Member of Parliament for Long Range Mountains, every aspect of the fishery in the constituency is a top priority for her and her colleagues.

“Look around us. We all know this, we see it every day, but here in Newfoundland and Labrador we are a people of the sea. We’ve got over 10,000 miles of coastline, the sea and all of our connections with it. They’re the major thread that’s woven into the fabric of who we are as a people. It anchors our rural and remote communities, it provides incredible livelihoods for thousands of folks like plant workers, harvesters, businesses, and it puts products on consumers tables often all over the world and it continues to be the backbone, telling the story of who we are as a people and what a proud people we are.”

Local lobster fisherman Steven Stagg is not at all surprised that seals have been found to be eating a lot more than just Arctic cod.

“We’ve known that for years. They gotta eat. They eat everything fish-wise. It has a big affect on the stocks for sure.”

Stagg said the number of seals are getting out of hand.

“The seal hunt used to keep it somewhat under control, but nobody really kills seals anymore. There’s no market for it and stuff, so it’s gone out of control.”

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