The ebb and flow of the turr hunt

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By Allan Stoodley

Ever since this island was settled, murres have been hunted by outport Newfoundlanders.

In early days it was basically a subsistence hunt as turrs, as we call locally them, were a very important source of food for many of our people.

In many cases the birds were sold to augment a fisherman’s sparse income.

Prior to Confederation turrs could be shot at any time of the year but when this province became a part of Canada the murre was then automatically covered under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, an international agreement involving Canada, the United States and several other countries and covering all birds which migrate to and from and around these countries.

From 1949 up until the 1960s turrs were only allowed to be hunted by “outport Newfoundlanders” and then only if those doing the hunting were in need of the birds for food.

However, around 1970 the regulations changed, altohough in the 1970s and 1980s the hunt was basically unregulated, with no permit or licence requirement and no bag limit in force.

For decades turr hunting had been pursued using the old reliable slow-moving dory and very often with single-shot shotguns.

In the 1970s and 1980s this all changed with the growing  popularity of pump action and semi-automatic  shotguns and the introduction of lighter, more mobile and much faster fiberglass boats.

The hunting of the delicious bird became a popular sport and, for some hunters, became very much a commercial enterprise, with an estimated 30 per cent of the birds that were shot were being sold.  

During that time frame it was estimated that anywhere from 625,000 to 1,200,000 turrs were being killed annually.

According to Bruce Turner, former manager of the Canadian Wildlife Service in this province,  important  regulation changes were made in the early 1990s when bag limits and shorter seasons for turr hunting came into being.

He explained the March 10 closing date of the hunting season reduced the kill numbers significantly, especially in the Cape Freels to Southern Shore area of the province.

Turr harvest numbers quoted by Turner show a steep decline in the 1990s averaging approximately 200,000 birds per year.

During the past 10 years or so the general migratory bird Surveys conclude that the number of turrs killed declined even more from 118,000 in 2008 to 66,000 harvested in 2011.

Turner cites a combination of reasons for the much lower numbers of turrs being killed. Among them is the fact there’s not as much ice around our coasts in recent years, which pushes the birds closer to land. Another factor is that not many younger people are taking up the sport.  

As he puts it “it’s mostly only the older die-hards who are still at it.”

The best estimates are that five million turrs come to winter off Newfoundland.  

Some of them are our local population. but the vast majority of the birds come down from the Canadian Arctic and Greenland and spend the winter around our coastlines and into the bays.

The estimate of the 2012-2013 turr harvest — recently released — shows a figure of 53,000 turrs killed. However, Turner cautions that most of the annual kill figures come from the regular migratory bird surveys.

The last specific turr surveys were done in 2001 and 2002 and provided harvest estimates of approximately 187,000 and 158,000.  He is inclined to believe the actual harvest is somewhat higher than the estimates from the regular surveys.

With a healthy estimated population of five million turrs wintering around our coasts and the sustainable harvest of around 400,000 birds per year — based on modeling exercises in the early 1990 — “the present harvest levels do not pose a threat to the murre population” Turner said.

Allan Stoodley is a long time resident of Grand Bank and a former reporter with the St. John’s Evening Telegram.  He can be reached at amstoodley@hotmail.com and he welcomes any comments on this article or any other story that he has written.

Organizations: Migratory Bird Convention, Canadian Wildlife Service, Canadian Arctic Grand Bank

Geographic location: Canada, United States, Cape Freels Southern Shore Newfoundland Greenland

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