OTTAWA — A Senate committee says Ottawa should approve a cull of 70,000 seals off Canada’s East Coast in a controversial four-year experiment aimed at helping the recovery of cod stocks.
The committee has spent almost a year studying a federal proposal to slaughter up to 70 per cent of the grey seal population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, a plan critics say has been driven by politics, not science.
The committee is also recommending some kind of bounty system to compensate hunters, but it didn’t say how much the bounty should be. There is no market for grey seal pelts.
Acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea is under pressure from the fishing industry to do something about the stunted cod recovery in the Gulf, where there’s indirect scientific evidence suggesting hungry grey seals are to blame.
The cod in the area are on the verge of disappearing even though large-scale commercial fishing has been banned there since the early 1990s.
“The committee is persuaded by the demonstration that seal predation is preventing the recovery of groundfish stocks in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence,” the committee said in its report released Tuesday.
“While acknowledging the ecological risks raised by some witnesses, the committee supports the logic of the proposed experimental reduction of grey seals in this area.”
However, leading biologists and animal welfare groups have condemned the proposal, saying there’s no scientific evidence to suggest a cull would work.
Anticipating the Senate’s decision to endorse a cull, the International Fund for Animal Welfare issued a report earlier this week urging the Harper government to change course.
“Proceeding with a cull of grey seals without proper scientific evaluation and fisheries recovery plans is nothing short of irresponsible,” the animal welfare group said.
“Culling grey seals would be a waste of taxpayers’ money and could have international repercussions, both scientific and economic. There is much to risk losing by proceeding with a grey seal cull, and very little that we can expect to gain.”
A group of marine biologists at Dalhousie University in Halifax issued an open letter last fall that said a cull could produce unintended consequences, including further depletion of the cod.
The letter said the proposal couldn’t be justified by existing scientific evidence and was biased because it focused only on the negative impact of grey seals.
The scientists said the proposal “represents the antithesis of a precautionary management approach.”
In testimony before the committee earlier this year, Dalhousie biologist Boris worm said: “It seems highly unlikely that the culling of seals would have a measurable benefit on the recovery of cod or indeed other groundfish. ... It could even have a negative effect.”
Keith Ashfield, who temporarily stepped down last week as fisheries minister after suffering a heart attack, has shrugged off the biologists’ accusations, saying “seals aren’t vegetarians or vegans — they eat fish.”
Ashfield has said a cull is supported by peer-reviewed research and would be subject to strict controls and monitoring.
However, the Fisheries Department released a study in October 2011 that concluded there’s little evidence to show such slaughters actually work.
The review of scientific literature showed there has been very little study of marine and land-based culls around the world.
“Despite the widespread use of culling to manage carnivore populations with respect to food production, there is rather limited scientific evidence that such management is generally effective,” wrote Fisheries Department researcher Don Bowen and Damian Lidgard of Dalhousie University.
Still, fishermen and seafood producers have been calling for a cull for years. They say the growing grey seal population is responsible for eating too many fish and wrecking fishing gear.
The Fisheries Department says there are 350,000 grey seals living off the Atlantic coast — a 30-fold increase since the 1960s. About 100,000 of these seals forage in the southern Gulf, about a third of them coming from Sable Island.
Even though the Fisheries Department says seal hunters can kill up to 60,000 grey seals annually, only a few hundred have been killed since 2009.
The annual Canadian commercial seal hunt has long focused on the far more numerous harp seals, which are estimated to number about nine million off the East Coast.
The Senate committee isn’t the first group of legislators to recommend a cull.
In May 2007, an all-party Commons committee recommended that Sable Island be opened up to a grey seal hunt. The recommendation was ignored.