Seal cull recommended for southern Gulf of St. Lawrence


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A cull of thousands of grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence was among the recommendations made Thursday to federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield in an effort to bolster groundfish stocks in the region.

The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council released its report aimed at recovering and sustaining the groundfish population. Eliminating 70 per cent of grey seals in the southern Gulf was identified among the 31 suggestions as a way to restore healthier groundfish stocks.

The southern Gulf ranges from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia.

In the report, the FRCC said that to protect existing groundfish numbers in the region, a reduction of the grey seal population to about 31,000 animals would be necessary, with an “initial reduction” of about 73,000 seals “within a year or two.”

Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada, said it is “absolutely reprehensible” to suggest such a measure.

“A cull of 70 per cent of the population would not be sustainable and could lead to the extrication of this species off our east coast,” Aldworth said Thursday. “The fact the FRCC would call for such a reckless move . . . speaks to the political motives of the FRCC . . . and is, in my opinion, the fishing industry attempting to divert attention from the irresponsible fishing practices that continue today.”

She insists there is a lack of scientific evidence to suggest that the grey seal population has a negative effect on the health of groundfish stocks and that overfishing remains the largest threat against cod and other fish in the region.

In the report, the FRCC cites inconclusive science, but said the measure is feasible and could do more good than harm over the long term.

“In this application, the absence of scientific certainty that seal predation is maintaining groundfish populations at levels below their limit reference points should not preclude cautious action by decision makers to mitigate such serious or irreversible harm.”

The report added: “In Eastern Canada, we have seal populations at the peak of the exponential phase, so the reductions calculated to be necessary to produce a positive effect on groundfish recovery are very large.”

The report also called for further research to examine seal diets and other behaviours in the region, as well as other methods of seal population control.

A spokeswoman for Ashfield said that the department is “carefully analyzing” the report’s recommendations and wants to work to protect the health of both groundfish and seal populations.

“Upon initial examination, most of the council’s recommendations are in keeping with the department’s current policies and approaches to management of groundfish and cod fisheries,” Erin Filliter wrote in an email, adding that the department will “continue to stand up” for Canadian sealers.

“Fishermen and women 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.”

Aldworth argued that if Canada were to allow a cull, it would add more anger among some in the international community who are opposed to the commercial seal harvest.

“Canada’s international reputation has suffered because of the continuation of the commercial seal hunt,” she said. “The eyes of the world are on Canada in terms of the way that we’re managing seal populations and there is absolutely no scientific basis for the cull of grey seals, or any other seal species, in Canada.”

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