Seal hunt ecologically irresponsible

By Debbie MacKenzie           (published by the Halifax Herald, March 29, 2006)

Nobody said that the seal hunt was cruel, and nobody complained that Canada kills whitecoat pups, at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ latest public consultation on seal hunting.

At the seal forum last November, only one criticism was raised against the seal hunt. It was argued that the seal hunt plan is unacceptable because it is not "ecosystem-based," and DFO was reminded of its legal obligation under the Oceans Act to use ecosystem-based conservation plans.

A stable, healthy ocean ecosystem needs large natural predators, and all other big predators in Atlantic Canada, besides seals, have recently been eliminated. Scientists accept these facts: This is in reference to the huge numbers of large predatory fish that long competed with seals to eat small fish.

Today, essentially all big fish are gone, and rising seal numbers have not nearly made up for the loss. To maintain a healthy natural predator presence in the ocean, therefore, none of the relatively few surviving fish predators should now be killed, and that includes seals.

Natural predators play key roles; and entire ecosystems, including the prey species, do better when predators survive too. Eliminating large predators degrades ecosystems, and this occurs everywhere from forests to grasslands to oceans.

A mass harvest of seals today carries a greater ecological risk to the ocean than it did when great hordes of large predatory fish shared the waters (cod, shark, halibut, etc.) and shared the seals’ ecological role.

The truth is that today’s ocean scenario, both the potentialities and the risks, is not remotely like it was in earlier times.

Now the web of sea life appears strangely unstable, teetering. If we take the seals, we remove the last natural predators from a once robust web.

What collapses then? The platitude that seal hunting is a time-honoured "tradition" becomes irrelevant.

Although seals and ice floes may look exactly as they did in past centuries, what lies beneath the surface has changed dramatically for the worse.

The food supply for fish is failing, and the oxygen content of seawater is falling, as the ecosystem becomes increasingly poor and degraded. Under this scenario, insisting on targeting the last surviving natural fish predator courts ecological disaster.

The worst of it is that there are DFO scientists who are aware of this problem, but who are not permitted to speak openly about it.

These scientists were not invited to "advise" the "seal managers." The managers wanted "science advice" only on the size of the seal herds, refusing to consider information about the state of the ecosystem, including the now serious shortage of fish predators.

When it was explained at the seal forum that DFO scientists have published much relevant ecosystem science, including a rationale for protecting fish predators, and that this information should logically translate into advice that managers not approve another seal hunt – the reply was silence.

But outside the forum, a DFO official remarked that nobody reads those ecosystem papers anyhow.

DFO managers were formally asked to consider science advice from their own scientists, regarding how modern ecosystem objectives should be used in planning the seal hunt. But they refused, claiming this was unnecessary.

Amid hyperbole about "science on the cutting edge" and "international leadership," DFO boasts of using a new "ecosystem approach" to ocean conservation.

But they are not, because the new seal hunt plan is, like all previous ones, based only on an outmoded "single-species approach."

This method was long used by fishery managers: Numbers of fish or seals were estimated and then some fraction was declared as the quota for a "sustainable fishery." However, this simple strategy has failed spectacularly – think: cod crash.

Science today knows a better way, but DFO refuses to admit it.

DFO was likely pleased to see animal rights groups again denouncing this spring’s harp seal hunt as brutal. That was their cue to launch the standard rebuttal: "The seal hunt is humane! We have scientific proof of that! And we don’t kill whitecoat pups!"

OK, sure DFO, we’ve heard all that before. Now please explain why you refuse to meet your obligation to safeguard the future of Canada’s marine life by using modern scientific methods, by meeting your legal obligation to Canadians to use an ecosystem-based approach to conservation.

Why do you refuse to listen even to your own scientists?

Why, after the disastrous losses of marine life over the last two decades, does Canada still have government science muzzled by the fishing industry?

Debbie MacKenzie, of Prospect, is a director of the Grey Seal Conservation Society. ( )

For more information on DFO's seal forum 2005, see: Seal Forum

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