Fishermen have argued for years that seals have been impeding the recovery of the northern cod stock.
While some groundfish species in the waters off Eastern Canada have been listed as endangered or threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), seal populations have exploded.
In its latest report to the minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC), says “seals have eclipsed humans as a major cause of mortality in some stocks of these fish.”
Stock assessments, the council notes, show the harp seal population at about 9.1 million animals. The grey seal population on Sable Island has increased 10-fold in the past 30 years, to reach 350,000 seals.
The FRCC says it’s time for government to take action to reduce those seal populations.
In its September report, which suggests measures to help groundfish fisheries rebuild, the council recommends that an experimental reduction take place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to maintain the number of grey seals foraging in that area to less that 31,000 animals.
It also recommends a “comprehensive monitoring of the effect on groundfish and ecosystem parameters be continued for a time sufficient to definitively test the effect on the groundfish population in that area.”
Seals should also be removed in other specified areas, says the FRCC, and scientific work should be carried out to further explore the hypothesis of whether or not seal reductions would affect groundfish recoveries.
The report acknowledges there is key information missing when it comes to seal diets, forage ranges, behaviours and methods of population control.
To find the missing information, the council suggests the government provide funding for targeted research.
Gerard Chidley, chair of the FRCC, said in a news release DFO should proceed as soon as possible with targeted grey seal removals to test the hypothesis.
According to a spokesperson for DFO, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield is analyzing the recommendations.
A statement provided by his office said initial examination suggests most of the recommendations are in keeping with the departments polices and approaches.
There is no word on whether the recommendations will be implemented.
“As fishermen have been clear about the impact of growing grey seal populations on cod and other groundfish, DFO is working with provincial and industry partners on developing a plan that is cost-effective and sustainable in order to promote the long-term health and sustainability of both the cod and grey seal populations,” the DFO statement read.