Hay Island Grey Seal Hunt, 2008
sacrilege at Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton

(See: 2009 Update on this story, February 10, 2009)

Debbie MacKenzie

The Province of Nova Scotia has outdone even Canada's federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in bungling "conservation", in approving a seal hunt in a protected wilderness area on Hay Island. Nova Scotia knows it has entered a legal “grey area” – fines under the Wilderness Areas Protection Act, the law that has been broken, can reach $500K per day for an individual and up to $1 Million a day for a corporation. And the Crown can be held liable under the law, i.e. for the actions of the Cabinet Minister and the provincial government department that approved the illegal seal hunt. Media reported that Environment Minister Mark Parent had “some misgivings” about the decision, but that he relied on legal advice. The illegal hunt of a few thousand seals on Hay Island this winter is doubtless a prequel to a much larger illegal slaughter of grey seals that the fishermen want to carry out in another protected area, at Sable Island. Below is my letter to Mark Parent, requesting his written reasons for his decision and explaining the value of seals to such wilderness areas.

February 17, 2008

Grey seal pups on Oak Island, February 2007. Photo taken a couple of days before hundreds were killed in a commercial seal hunt at this site.

The Honourable Mark Parent,
Nova Scotia Minister of
Environment and Labour
5151 Terminal Road
Halifax, N.S.
B3J 2T8

Dear Mr. Parent,

On behalf of the Grey Seal Conservation Society (GSCS), I am writing to express my extreme disappointment and disapproval of the grey seal hunt at Hay Island, which is not only illegal and ecologically irresponsible, but an embarassment to the province of Nova Scotia.

What information did you use as the basis of your decision to approve the hunt? I understand you were asked to approve the seal hunt by Ron Chisholm, provincial Fisheries minister. In a media release, Mr. Chisholm claims he “looked carefully at all the available information” and media reports explained that “fisheries staff gave (Minister Parent) a detailed explanation of the need for the hunt.” Mr. Chisholm explained that the reason his department made the request was to “protect fish species in the Hay Island area.”

Media reports further suggest that you relied on legal advice that you could permit the otherwise illegal hunt if it was “for the responsible management, preservation or restoration of indigenous biodiversity of a wilderness area.” The Chronicle Herald reported that the detailed legal analysis considered your possible “responsibility for the fish” that might swim in the water that rises over the protected land at high tide, and that part of the basis of your decision was “whether seals were eating the fish when the tide was in and covering the land protected under the act.” Is this imagined as a threat to the “biodiversity” of the wilderness area?

Mr. Parent, with all due respect, that is ludicrous. The seals targeted by the hunt are recently weaned, fasting and moulting, and not yet swimming babies. When these young seals take to the sea, do government lawyers honestly worry that they might return to the intertidal zone to eat fish? The truth is it would do no harm if they did. Why does Nova Scotia allow assessments with legal implications to be completed and used as the basis for decisions without eliciting or considering the opinions of properly recognized experts?

Did your review include an assessment of the adequacy or accuracy of “all the available information” that was considered by Mr. Chisholm? Did the material submitted to you by Mr. Chisholm include the expert evidence on this same issue that was recently obtained by the provincial standing committee on resources ? Dr. Boris Worm, associate professor of marine conservation at Dalhousie University, was recently invited by the committee to answer questions on the 'state of the ocean'. Here are a few snippets from the record of the meeting, information that must be "available" to the government:

"MR. WORM: "...seals today are actually not hindering the recovery of cod but actually are good for the recovery of cod because they are the only left predators...a lot of what we know is based on hypotheses and generalizations and a very scant understanding of how marine ecosystems are working. Now some people would turn this around and say, we don't know anything so let's just go ahead. I would say we know little, so let's make use of the little bit we know and be very, very careful about every new step. That's where I see us failing a little bit because every new step is not done more carefully than the step before.
MR. MUIR: A very interesting thing...back on one of the slides that you spoke from very early, you said that the prevalence of seals was actually helping the recovery of the cod stock.
MR. WORM: Potentially, yes...
MR. THERIAULT: Why do you think those haddock aren't growing well on Georges Bank?
MR. WORM: That's a very interesting question...It's growing slower, it's maturing earlier, it's more skinny, it's not as fat...
MR. THERIAULT: We get most of our knowledge from lobster from the United States, from Maine. That's where we learn it from. Thank you. That's enough from me.
MR. CHAIRMAN (John MacDonell): Enough from you, I'm glad we got that in Hansard. (Laughter)...In the fishery I always feel handicapped, because you can't really tell for sure what's going on and what's there. So I look at this as kind of a trophic house of cards where you're pulling these cards out and you can't be sure just which card is going to make the whole thing collapse or whatever.
     We had
a presentation by the Grey Seal Conservation Society, and Mr. Theriault raised this issue of the haddock and them being smaller and whatever. A position posed to us that day was the lack of nutrient in the ocean ecosystem and we were given a presentation of photographs back in the 1940s to present-day, where there were barnacles on the rocks in the 1940s, but in the same location today there were none. Also this was to make the case that the grey seals, even though they have an increase in number, they have replaced this predator level that has been removed from the oceans and they're actually putting nutrient back into the system...I guess, at some point I would like to think that maybe my grandchildren will say to me, there'll be a report that Nova Scotia's oceans or the oceans of the world are far better than they were in 2007 and they'll say, Grandpa, weren't you a politician in 2007, so what did you do or what could you have done, or whatever. But I'd like it to be a positive story, the fact that I was here...
MR. WORM: ...The second problem we're having in the ocean is that once it's bust, we don't know how to bring it back, other than leave it alone...We can't engineer recovery; that's the thing, we can't engineer it...
MR. BELLIVEAU: ...You said three words, "It's not too late." I seriously believe that we were here, and I think somebody's going to look back in 50 years time and think that we had some input in getting this back in the right direction."

Rather than considering Dr. Worm’s expert opinion already available to the provincial government, is it possible that the provincial Minister of Fisheries instead relied “in good faith” on opinions from persons without ecological credentials who told him “in good faith” what they believed to be true? And did you as Minister of Environment accept this information plus legal advice given to you “in good faith”? Although possibly sincere, this process does not seem to be a very strenuous truth-seeking exercise. At what point does government “accountability” enter into this?

A year ago, the provincial Crown was reported to be prosecuting individuals for offences under the Wilderness Areas Protection Act that arose from illegal seal hunting at Hay Island. Might the Crown next have to defend itself against a prosecution under the same law? Could the matter go to court as a civil case, say, if some well-heeled seal hunt protester decided to finance a lawsuit?

(A few years ago, the provincial departments of Justice and Community Services relied on legal advice and ended up landing the Crown in an expensive mess – sorting out all the liability that arose from the mishandled allegations of institutional abuse which was then compounded by violation of the Charter rights of employees and former employees…that time, Nova Scotia taxpayers ended up paying millions of dollars more that they needed to have paid…because of errors made by the Crown, errors quite possibly made in “good faith”…but I digress.)

Mr. Parent, the primary objective of the Wilderness Areas Protection Act is to “maintain and restore the integrity of natural processes and biodiversity.” And that is the primary reason you should not have approved the seal hunt.

A vital natural process that sustains ocean island ecosystems is the movement of organic matter from the sea to the land. This occurs as various forms of marine life are washed up, crawl out, or are pulled out onto land, to be eaten by land organisms and ultimately integrated into the soil, grass and forests of islands.  

Seabirds are an example of important players, bringing fish onto the land to feed their young. The food they eat is cycled through pathways that enrich the land. Without this natural process the island soil becomes gradually poorer as rainfall and gravity erode organic reserves. Counteracting the natural washout tendency, some ocean fish seem to virtually offer themselves up for consumption by land animals. Two examples are capelin and grunion, small fish that swim from the open ocean to the edge of the surf by the millions to spawn. Their eggs and spent carcasses feed a host of land animals, representing an important basis of soil building.  

Grey seal pups remain on land for a few weeks after they are weaned by their mothers. The white fur is lost then and replaced by a dappled grey coat. During this period, the seals eat no fish or hay, but their urine will serve to fertilize the grass. Weaker pups die on land (hold mouse over the photo above), to be eaten by various land animals and ultimately enrich the land ecosystem.

Fascinating research from the Pacific coast of North America has recently shown how entire forest ecosystems are now impoverished as a result of the loss of salmon runs that always delivered tons of rich food high into the mountains via their annual one-way spawning migrations. Land based consumers from grizzly bears, eagles, foxes, numerous other birds, mammals and insects, to the very trees in the forests themselves, were found to have depended heavily on “marine derived nitrogen” delivered by salmon. Scientists determined that the entire ecosystem is now relatively impoverished by the loss of the salmon runs.

On Hay Island, the grey seal whelping congregation delivers an annual pulse of food to the island’s land ecosystem. Grey seals take no food from the land, however eagles, mink and many others feast on the placentas from the births of seal pups, as well as the carcasses of the 10% or more of grey seal pups who will die naturally on land. If a surviving seal pup should later eat a fish in the intertidal zone, does it then become reasonable for the Minister of the Environment and government lawyers to launch an assault on the whole herd? 

I don’t expect the fishermen have considered that the seals enrich the natural ecosystem on the island, and they honestly do not realize that seal pupping is an important natural process that the Minister is charged with protecting. We have missed key subtleties, which is why the cod stocks are not rebuilding. Rather than “exploding” seal populations, it is more accurate to say we have “imploding” fish populations, as the fish starve. For the bulk of their lives, when not on land, grey seals cycle nutrients in the sea in a pattern that counteracts fish starvation.

As Dr. Worm and the law tell us, animals in protected wilderness areas should be left alone. To maintain vibrant life on Hay Island, there should never be a seal hunt there. And on Nova Scotia's unique Sable Island, the largest colony of grey seals in the world contributes to the health of both the surrounding sea life and life on the island itself. 'Marine derived nitrogen' doubtless sustains the famous Sable Island horses. Does the Province next intend to authorize a seal hunt there?

Land dwellers owe a great debt to sea animals, perhaps especially to those who have always approached land on their own volition bearing gifts: the salmon, capelin, seabirds, turtles and seals. In their manner of birthing their own kind, these ocean species also benefit life on land. Grey seals are some of these very special animals, virtual ‘goodwill ambassadors’ who occasionally emerge from the sea to enrich the land. However, the direct enrichment of modern humans by seals should come only from our awe in their presence, and our enjoyment of healthy land ecosystems, and never from killing them and selling their pelts. I realize fishermen do not want to hear this, but that does not affect the truth of the matter.

I offer a final fact for your consideration, although with no supporting science: The Atlantic grey seal is the basis of the ancient Celtic myth of the ‘Selkies’…a belief that includes a warning to humans against killing grey seals because it brings bad luck.

Mr. Parent, I wish you had held public consultations, and that you had listened to your own misgivings before you approved the seal hunt on Hay Island. Are you convinced that due process was carried out? Otherwise, this decision might discredit the integrity of other contentious decisions made by the Department of Environment and Labour, like your recent decision to approve an open pit gold mine at Moose River, Nova Scotia.

Please send me a copy of your written decision to approve the seal hunt on Hay Island along with the facts on which your decision was based. Thank you.

Not a mother and pup, but two grey seal pups after their mothers have left the whelping area. At this point, the pups seem to stick together, seeking the company of their own kind. The pup at right is still alive, and it has begun to shed its white coat, but this one is too small and weak to survive long. On ice at the beach edge, this pup will likely be consumed by land animals after death, playing its part in an important natural process whereby sea animals fertilize and enrich the land.


Debbie MacKenzie
Grey Seal Conservation Society
P.O. Box 3011
Tantallon, Nova Scotia
B3Z 4G9

email: Codmother@bellaliant.net

For more on the ecological value of seals, see:
Nova Scotia Grey Seal Hunt 2004
Advice to Ocean Ecosystem Managers 2005
Comments to DFO's 2005 Seal Forum


"Doctors would be sued for malpractice if they diagnosed patients the way many scientists are diagnosing oceans."
- Jeremy Jackson, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

...Is the Nova Scotia solution to let lawyers "diagnose" oceans?

See 2009 Update on this story

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