Monday, February 6, 2012

Smarting Over Cod Shortages, Fishermen Blame Seals

From The New York Times: Smarting Over Cod Shortages, Fishermen Blame Seals
The codfish catch is declining, and nets are coming up empty. What to do? For some, the answer is to kill the marine mammals that compete with humans for fish.

In Canada, where a resurgent population of Atlantic gray seals is being held responsible by fishermen for the failure of cod stocks to bounce back, the fisheries department’s Science Advisory Secretariat last year proposed an experimental cull of 73,000 of the 350,000 gray seals estimated to live on the country’s east coast.

Once valued for their oil, gray seals were nearly wiped out by hunting pressures, and the population has been rebuilding only slowly. There is very little commercial hunting of gray seals because there is almost no market for them, in contrast to baby harp seals, which have been prized for their fur (although that market is drying up).

But the seal’s gradual comeback has coincided with the collapse of what was once one of the world’s great fisheries, the Canadian codfish stock, which has been moribund since 1992. This environmental and commercial calamity cost thousands of people their jobs and decimated fishing communities. Some fishermen — and, conservationists argue, politicians pandering to them — see a zero-sum equation at work: more seals, fewer fish.

The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, an industry advisory body, puts the case unequivocally: “The overwhelming belief among harvesters is that stocks cannot recover until seal numbers are reduced substantially,” it reported last September.

But Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian branch of Humane Society International, points out that seals and codfish co-existed for millennia. That shows that the problem lies elsewhere, she argues — in overfishing, by catch from other fisheries and damage to cod spawning grounds from offshore oil exploration.

“Truly addressing the real threat to cod stocks and other commercially targeted species would require a much more significant investment than scapegoating the seals,” she said. “There hasn’t been a shred of evidence to suggest killing seals will help restore the cod stocks.”

Scientists protested the proposed cull in an open letter, arguing that cod-seal interactions might have an important role in the ecosystem. The very notion of a “controlled experiment” in which a significant proportion of the seal population would be destroyed “challenges scientific credulity,” they wrote.

For now, the issue is being discussed in the Canadian Senate. The chamber’s Committee on Fisheries and Oceans says it will examine the state of the gray seal population, the potential impacts the seals could have on fish stocks, the proposed “targeted management of gray seals” and “markets and new product development.”

In regard to that final point: a cull – presumably subsidized by Canadian taxpayers – would give a boost to the country’s ailing sealers, who have been shut out of the European and Russian markets and are running out of places to sell seal products.

But Canada is hardly the only place where a seal can feel unloved. In Scotland, the Seal Action Protection Group estimates that 5,000 seals are being killed each year by salmon farmers and fishermen.

The Scottish government allows such killings for the purpose of “preventing serious damage to fisheries or fish farms” as well as for scientific research and conservation purposes. The cull is necessary, the government says, because with 186,000 grey seals and 19,800 common seals competing for resources, some management of the population is necessary.

According to The Herald newspaper in Glasgow, 65 licenses have been granted for seal killings this year, with 1,298 of the animals already killed.

A marine biologist and whale-watching operator, David Ainsley, was quoted as saying that fish farms shoot seals “not as a last resort but simply because killing is the cheapest solution,” even though harmless alternative means of deterring the salmon-snatchers exist.

All of which helps put into perspective the recent news that sea lions and harbor seals have been turning up dead in Puget Sound and along the Washington State coast recently.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Fisheries Service in Seattle, offers an explanation for why the sea lions and harbor seals are so easily targeted. “They’re not warm and cuddly,” he told The Associated Press. “These are big guys. They’re stinky. They’re carnivores, and they’re doing what they do best — they’re hunting for fish.”

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