Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Fisheries and Oceans
Issue 7 - Evidence - March 29, 2012
HALIFAX, Thursday, March 29, 2012
The Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans met this day at 9 a.m. to examine and report on the management of the grey seal population off Canada's East Coast.
Senator Fabian Manning (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: I would like to take the opportunity to welcome everybody here this morning. We are the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans of the Senate of Canada. We have, for the past couple of months, been conducting a study into the grey seal herd in Atlantic Canada and off the shores of Quebec. We have had several meetings and heard from many witnesses in Ottawa. We decided to take the show on the road, per se, and we are delighted to be in Halifax today.
We have a long day ahead of us. We have many groups or organizations and individuals that will be presenting before us today. We are delighted to be able to do that. If weather permits, we hope to conduct a fact-finding mission tomorrow to Sable Island. We look forward to that opportunity.
We are going to start off with representatives from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but before I do that I would like to introduce myself first. My name is Fabian Manning. I am from Newfoundland and Labrador and I have the privilege to serve as chair of this committee.
Before I ask the other senators to introduce themselves, I would like to make special note of Professor Jeffrey Hutchings and the marine biology students that are with us this morning from Dalhousie University. We are delighted to have them here participating in the session this morning. All our other guests are very welcome here also.
We have a full complement of senators from Atlantic Canada, which we are delighted to have with us. We are delighted to have Senator Harb with us also, from Toronto. We are going to let you take care of your introductions and we will start with Senator MacDonald please.
Senator MacDonald: I am Senator Michael MacDonald. I am the Nova Scotia senator for Cape Breton.
Senator Harb: Mac Harb, Ontario.
Senator Hubley: Elizabeth Hubley, Prince Edward Island.
Senator Cochrane: I am Ethel Cochrane, and I am from Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Chair: We have some other senators who sit on our committee, but due to conflicting schedules they could not join us here today. However, they certainly will be following up on the report that we will present when we return to Ottawa.
To start our first session of the day, as I mentioned earlier, we have representatives here from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I would ask that they introduce themselves and give us a few remarks before we get into questions from senators.
Morley Knight, Director General, Resource Management, Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Good morning, I am Morley Knight. I am the Director General of Resource Management with Fisheries and Oceans at the headquarters in Ottawa.
Doug P. Swain, Scientist, Marine Fish Ecosystems, Marine Fish Section, Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Good morning. I am Doug Swain. I am a scientist with DFO at the Gulf Fisheries Centre in Moncton. For the past 20 years or so I have worked on marine fish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, primarily groundfish in the southern gulf. This work has involved stock assessment and also research on the population dynamics and ecology of these fishes. Much of this work has been describing the changes in productivity that have occurred in these stocks and trying to understand the causes of these changes. In recent years this has really focused on increases in the natural mortality of large commercial fish that we have seen and again trying to understand why this natural mortality has increased.
Mike Hammill, Section Head, Marine Mammals Biology and Conservation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Good morning, my name is Mike Hammill. I am a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and I am stationed at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli. I have been with the department for 25 years now. I have been involved in providing advice on the population dynamics and population levels of harp seals and grey seals, and also beluga in northern Quebec. I am also involved in looking at diet composition and fisheries interactions, particularly with grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Nell den Heyer, Biologist, Population Ecology Division, Science Branch (Maritimes), Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Good morning. For the record, my full name is Cornelia den Heyer, but feel free to call me Nell. I did my PhD here at Dalhousie University on lobster movement and dispersal in the Northumberland Strait. After that I worked with the Fishermen and Scientists Research Society on a collaborative project with DFO. Since 2008, I have been working with DFO on the grey seals on Sable Island. I coordinated the pup production estimate for Sable Island in 2010, and I am now working on data to estimate vital rates of grey seals, including things like juvenile and adult survival and breeding probability.
Mr. Knight: I want to explain my role in the context of the seal advisory process and the seal management plans that take place.
As Director General for Resource Management, my role is to have the consultations with the fish harvesters throughout Atlantic Canada conducted and then to formulate from that and the science advice we receive the seal harvest management plans are put in place each year or for three to five years, as the case may be. I am prepared to speak about that today. I believe that I was required to be here to talk about the advisory process what we heard from seal harvesters this year.
I have recently moved to Ottawa. I have spent most of my career working in the Newfoundland and Labrador region, where I have worked for the last 30 years. Most of that time was spent around the seal harvest, primarily harp seals but also with regards to a lot of interaction with seals and seal harvesters around hood seals, grey seals, harbour seals, so the full range of the sealing that takes place in Atlantic Canada.
Over those 30 years we have seen a lot of changes in the ecosystem and a lot of concerns put forth by the industry and harvesters concerning the interrelationships between seal species and fish stocks.
I will stop there and let you decide if you want to ask questions around the advisory process, or I can give an overview now.
Senator Hubley: Welcome to you. It is very nice to be here in Halifax, and we feel as if we are very close to the situation.
As you know, our study has been ongoing for some time and we have gathered a lot of information. This is a unique situation in that we are dealing with a species — in this particular instance the grey seal — that is not endangered. There seems to be an animal rights component to it that I believe is holding us back from making a decision that is going to be in the best interests of both our fisheries and our seal population.
I have to go one step further to say that from my own perspective I am also very much concerned that we are dealing with an industry that has sustained this region of the country successfully for generations. With another hat on my head, I think that is where I would be viewing this issue as well.
My first question relates to the FRCC report. One of their recommendations was to start immediately on an experimental reduction of the grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence to maintain the number of seals foraging in that area at less than 31,000 animals. I am going to use that as an introduction.
My question to you all would be that if a targeted reduction were to take place, how do you see that happening and how do we go forward? I think we have to move forward from the parameters of the work that we do to address this issue for a future resolution.
Mr. Knight: We have been responding to the recommendations made by the FRCC in a number of ways. Primarily up to this point in time we have been having discussions with the industry, the members of the industry advisory boards in both the local committees that work in the provinces and the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee. We met here in Halifax on February 13 and 14 with a number of people who brought information to us and had a lengthy discussion around some of these issues. Prior to the meeting and at the meeting, we have been having discussions about how to effect that recommendation.
Based on the discussions that led up to the meetings here in Halifax on February 13 and 14, we tabled three ideas, or three concepts, for discussion.
The people who have advised us have said that there are two essential ways you can go at a population reduction. First, when fish harvesters and sealers are on the water conducting their normal activities, they often encounter grey seals, sometimes in small numbers and sometimes in larger numbers. The suggestion has been made to us of an incentive or some kind of financial reward for returning the jawbone of the seal. It is not necessarily a new concept because it existed in the 1980s. I am not sure of the period of duration, but I know it was in place in the mid-1980s, in the range of 1984 and 1986 when I worked in western and northern Newfoundland at that time.
One of the questions that requires a lot of discussion — and we have many opinions on it so far, but it is not an easy question to answer — is what price point would it take to be worthwhile for a seal harvester or a fisherman who is also a professional seal harvester to harvest a seal and retrieve and turn in the jawbone for some kind of incentive? That was the first concept.
The second concept has been put forth because of the difficulty — maybe I will go back to the first concept and talk about the difficulty of carrying that out from a harvester's perspective.
Harvesters have told us that when grey seals are killed in open water areas, in many cases they will sink immediately. When the animal is killed, it will sink. They told us that it is very difficult to retrieve the jawbone. While the animal may not be in the population any longer, providing proof and evidence of that so that they can receive a financial reward is a problem for them. They tell us that that strategy may work, but it will probably have limited effect.
The other concept they have discussed with us and we have put on the table for discussion here is a targeted removal in areas of high concentration where seals are congregated. The concept is that harvesters on a vessel with an observer from DFO would go to that area and make a targeted a reduction in that area. In some cases the seals might be killed on land where it is easy to verify the fact that the population has been reduced by that number, or they might be killed in open water. In those cases it would be impossible to retrieve the evidence that the seal had been eliminated.
That is part of the work that the observer would carry out. The observer would verify the actual number of animals dispatched. Discussions are ongoing and more discussions will occur with science about work that the observer can undertake on the animals available for viewing and the information and samples that can be collected for science in terms of would be useful for science for the longer term.
A third concept is a program that would have the combination of both of the previous two elements because it may very well be that there is an opportunistic way to reduce a number of animals, retrieve the jawbones, provide the evidence and get remuneration for that. It may be that that will not work effectively, but the consensus view of the people at the advisory committee meeting in Halifax was that a combination approach of both types of programs would be the best and most effective way to implement the FRCC report. At this point in time, we are still having discussions with the parties, with industry, with provincial representatives, and we have also engaged an external consultation to give us better information and analysis of what that would take and what the cost-benefit analysis is in terms of how that would work for a fishing enterprise.
Senator Hubley: You mentioned an external consultant. Could you explain the qualifications and the role that he or she will perform for you?
Mr. Knight: The consulting firm that we have engaged is Gardner Pinfold, a firm based in Nova Scotia. They have done a lot of economic analysis of fishing and fishing-based activities. They are well recognized for their expertise in that area. They have provided many different reports for the fishing industry. They have been engaged by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans before.
We have asked them to verify the economics of the activity that would be carried out. For example, the recommendation that we receive from most of the industry participants may be that it would take a minimum of $100 to make it feasible for a seal harvester to retrieve a jawbone and bring it back. That is on an opportunistic basis. The harvesters also said that because of the costs involved with a direct targeted reduction, taking an observer and going to a particular location to retrieve seals, it would take in that case as well a minimum of $100 because they are involving direct costs.
We have asked Gardner Pinfold to do an economic analysis of that. We have asked them to verify for us that that is the real cost and what the original return on the investment of time, energy and expenses would be for seal harvesting or fishing enterprises.
Senator Hubley: We have heard a fair amount of evidence about the resource itself and the value of that resource. Given the work that you have done with seal harvesters, is that an option that they would like to see pursued, that the seal become a commodity and that it be processed? First of all, you have to harvest it. It then has to be processed. The products that can come from that are valued and somewhat sought after in certain areas. There is a feeling that that is using the resource in a manageable way. There is a feeling that that is the proper way to go. How far along would that be?
Mr. Knight: That is definitely part of the discussion that has occurred with industry representatives. A number of on-the-record, in the open, public domain discussions about that occurred at the advisory committee. Some of the enterprises that were there told us about business ventures they are exploring.
The real challenge is to find a market for the product and to be able to get the product into that market. Some of those things are beyond the domain of Canada to control, but Canadian officials are working with all the jurisdictions to see if we can get the permissions required to allow our products to go into those jurisdictions.
That is obviously the preferred method for industry as well. It is very possible that that may help in a very effective way to implement that recommendation because we have set the total allowable catch for grey seals. Obviously, the most effective way to have that harvest occur would be if there is a viable market for the products derived from the harvest. At the same time, if there is no market, then I think the clear message from industry is that they are demanding that governments do something.
Senator Harb: I have a couple questions to ask you about your zonal advisory process. You brought in about 57 scientists and experts to review 30 papers, or so. Did any one of those papers that these advisers and experts were analyzing suggest that grey seals could be of help to the cod?
Mr. Hammill: I was part of the organizing committee for that meeting, and we were asked to address a couple of questions. The first question was how many seals should be removed to affect recovery. The second aspect, which we did address, was to evaluate if seals did have a negative impact or not on fisheries.
The people who presented papers looked at this in different ways. Most of them looked at it as predation and whether it could be negative, and also the aspect of whether indirect effects could have negative impacts. Those were the only papers that were evaluated.
Senator Harb: Right, so there was no question before the advisory group to look at the potential positive impact of the seals on the cod.
Mr. Hammill: It is hard to see if there are positive impacts, but there were other people at the meeting who could have presented papers showing positive aspects and none chose to do so.
Senator Harb: Did any of the advisers or the experts dissent or disagree with the working of the group?
Mr. Hammill: If they showed positive aspects?
Senator Harb: Yes.
Mr. Hammill: We would have evaluated the information that would have been presented and based it upon the quality of the work that would have been presented.
Senator Harb: So it was unanimous. All of those experts who came in all agreed that grey seals are solely responsible for the reduction of the cod stock?
Mr. Hammill: No. The question that was evaluated was whether grey seals have a negative impact or limit the recovery of cod in two stocks. For the VsW stock on the Scotian Shelf, the conclusion was that predation mortality caused by seals was important but that it was not the dominant factor. In the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, several hypotheses were examined. The hypothesis that was retained is that grey seals were likely the most important factor limiting the recovery of 4T cod.
Senator Harb: I am sure you would agree with me that, as a scientist, you would normally look at both sides of the equation to get a proper result. You have to look at whether the value of x is plus and the value of x is minus and what would the result of y would be on the other side of the equation. Accordingly, you come up with a conclusion.
DFO itself has said that cod represents 1 to 24 per cent of the diet of the grey seal. They said themselves that this creature eats herring and eats other products from the ocean. They eat clams. They eat skate and other small aquatics. Is it possible, for example, that herring may be doing more damage than the cod? Did you look at those other components?
Mr. Hammill: In the first part, the ecosystem monitoring that we did do, there was an overall net benefit to the removal of grey seals. There was not a benefit to keep grey seals so they could feed on herring. There is no real positive impact on the ecosystem — minimal negative impacts on the ecosystem for the removal of grey seals. Doug works more on fish than I do, so he will help you out on this.
Mr. Swain: That is an interesting and important question. In the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence there is some evidence that herring and mackerel, the main pelagic fishes there, do eat cod eggs and larvae. This evidence comes actually from not a time of pelagic fish biomass but at a time of very low pelagic fish biomass. The biomass of these fishes collapsed in the late sixties and early seventies due to overfishing and went to very low levels. At that time, the recruitment rate or survival of the early life stages of cod rose to unusually high levels.
Subsequently, pelagic fish biomass recovery and recruitment rate returned to a more normal level for cod. Now the recruitment rate of cod is at about the same level as it was in the fifties and sixties. I would say herring biomass is probably at a normal level for herring. What has happened is that cod in the past were probably the main predators of herring and now seals have replaced them to some extent.
If seal reductions reduce predation on herring, for example, will this have a negative effect on cod? One thing to consider is that if cod recover, they will replace seal as the main predator of herring and herring biomass will not go up too much. The other thing to remember is that herring are an important commercial species in the southern gulf. Currently, overall, the stock is at a healthy level, but fishery removals are limited by a quota. If the herring were to increase, the quota would likely increase also, so it is not likely that herring would increase to unusually high levels in the gulf.
In terms of other indirect impacts, you have to think of the competitors and predators of cod that are an important prey of grey seals. Historically cod were the dominant piscivore in the southern gulf. The only other important piscivore is white hake which occurs during the summer feeding season in a different habitat. It is hard for me to think of an important prey of grey seals that is a predator or a competitor of adult cod. It is not clear to me that there would be a strong negative effect that would not be balanced by increased predation by cod or by fisheries.
Senator Harb: With respect to best practices, are there other jurisdictions around the world that have in fact managed culls in order to balance the ecosystem? Have we seen best practices where other jurisdictions, for example, have focused on increasing the fish stocks through some sort of other method? It strikes me that what we are doing here is assuming that the only two things in the ocean are fish and seals. The fish have gone down, so we are holding the grey seal responsible for that, when in fact this committee has heard many experts tell us that this is not two animals or two creatures here — if you reduce one, the other one would increase. We have multiple factors, an extremely complex system. One of the scientists told us that it does not matter what we do at this point in time. The level of cod is so low to the point where whether the seals are there or not, we may have gone beyond the ability to recover the stock and that we need other measures before we turn around and start killing all those poor grey seals.
Mr. Swain: Cod are still at a very low level, but they are still an important part of the southern gulf ecosystem.
In terms of why their numbers are staying low, the fishery was closed again in 2009. Landings in the last couple of years have been about 100 tonnes. The loss of southern gulf cod to natural mortality is about 20,000 tonnes. Really the only way the stock is going to recover is if natural mortality declines.
We have done a lot of work to try and understand the causes of this high natural mortality. I can list all the hypotheses if you want. There are about eight to ten of them. Some of them appear to have been important in the past in terms of natural mortality of cod, but for the last 10 or 15 years the only hypothesis that has any credibility is predation.
Mr. Hammill: In this ecosystem there were no grey seals. They were not a significant ecosystem factor since at least the mid to late 1800s. There was a previous cod crash during the 1970s and there was a rapid recovery once fishing was reduced.
What we see this time is that fishing pressure has been reduced. There is no longer a recovery. The reason we do not have a recovery is because the mortality rate amongst large cod is extremely high and there are no other predators except for, to a very small extent, some cetaceans. Cod, then, seems to form an important component in the diet of grey seals in certain areas, reaching up to 60 per cent of the diet, particularly in the overwintering areas. As Doug says, there needs to be a way to reduce mortality amongst the larger cod.
The grey seal population was around 12,000 animals back in the sixties. They are now about 350,000 in Atlantic Canada. This is a factor that has moved into the system that was not present and has not been present for about 150 to 200 years.
Senator Cochrane: We have heard so much about seals. You are starting a new management plan, are you not? When is it going to be phased in?
Mr. Knight: We have announced the total allowable catches for this year. Over the coming months we will finalize a full management plan document, but the total allowable catches have been put in place for this year.
Senator Cochrane: How much is that?
Mr. Knight: For grey seals it is 60,000 and for harp seals it is 400,000.
Senator Cochrane: Did you have something else?
Mr. Knight: No. Those are the main elements in the context of the quotas for these primary species that you are interested in today.
Like I said, the other elements of the management plan will be largely the same as they have been in the past based on the advice we have received from industry advisers. We will formulate that into a document and get further information from industry on that over the coming months. It will be a management plan that looks and contains similar elements to the previous management plan, which includes seasons and total allowable catches.
Senator Cochrane: According to media reports this week, no date has been set for the opening of the 2012 seal hunt. Do you have a date in mind? Has one been announced that we have not heard of?
Mr. Knight: A small hunt has already occurred for harp seals in the proximity of the Magdalen Islands. Discussions are ongoing with industry advisers in Newfoundland and Labrador. I am advised that they have come to the conclusion that they will have a similar opening date to previous years, which will be around April 12. The final decision will be made as they get closer to that time, taking into consideration the ice and weather conditions and the location of the herds at that time. They make the final decision based on the final input from industry at that time.
Senator Cochrane: Are the fishermen involved in this?
Mr. Knight: Absolutely. They have a pretty well organized process. Notwithstanding that, they do not all agree, but in this context there are many people involved and their opinions are often diverse based on the geographic location and the other activities in which they are involved. They do have a very well-structured process in terms of advisory committees and the sealers' association. The harvesters are well-represented. While they do not all agree, they agree with the process.
Senator Cochrane: What is the length of time for the seal hunt?
Mr. Knight: That will depend on the level of activity. For example, we are talking now about the harp seal.
Senator Cochrane: Yes, of course.
Mr. Knight: If there were many, many vessels, we have seen for certain fleet sectors — of course the larger quota is broken down into quite a number of subsets. For example, there is a portion for the Gulf of St. Lawrence and a portion for the area east of Newfoundland and Labrador. Within that quota, for east of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, there is a quota for the area on the Labrador coast. Then there is a portion for the area adjacent to the Northern Peninsula and an area between the Northern Peninsula and Bonavista Bay, and then south of Bonavista Bay, and that is subdivided into vessels over 40 feet and under 40 feet. In some cases in the past we have seen the quotas taken in as little as two days, and last year none of the quotas were reached. Most of the hunting was contained within eight or ten days, I think, because that relates to when the seals are in the best condition. At a certain stage, they are in the best condition to be harvested.
This year, given what we know about ice conditions and markets, we do not expect it to be a very short season. It will probably take place over a period of one week or 10 days. Incidental harvesting for food and local purposes might continue on for a few weeks after that, depending on the availability of seals in the areas.
Senator Cochrane: It is only when the seals are there. Do they know the specific time when the grey seals are there? Sorry to go on.
Mr. Knight: No problem, because these are all relevant questions to your work.
Grey seals, for the large part, keep their habitat mostly to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the area around eastern Nova Scotia. They do go as far north as the Northern Peninsula and sometimes to certain portions of the East Coast of Newfoundland. My science colleagues are in a much better position to speak about the distribution within the gulf than I am.
When harp seals pup, they concentrate in two general areas: the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coast of Labrador. For example, the harp seals, the hunt that you are referring to, those animals pup in two locations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just north of the Magdalen Islands and just south of what is called the Macatina Pass just south of Harrington on the coast of the Lower North Shore, Quebec.
The much larger harp seal herd pups off the coast of Labrador. In any given year, all conditions being equal, if it is a good ice year, that herd will congregate and pup somewhere in the vicinity of 50 to 75 miles east of the Spotted Islands, near the community of Black Tickle, Labrador.
Most of the hunting occurs from that herd in recent years, at least. As the ice pack drifts south along the coast of Labrador and comes down off the coast of Newfoundland, by the time the seals are at the age and condition to be harvested, the ice pack and the seals that are on it are generally in the vicinity of somewhere between east of St. Anthony and east of Twillingate. Of course, that is highly variable depending on ice conditions and wind conditions. That is the general synopsis of what occurs.
Senator Cochrane: In the last meeting here in Halifax to devise a management plan, they came up with two new ideas: the jawbone issue and then killing the seal in open water. These have not been tried before. Has killing seals in open water been tried before?
Mr. Knight: I think it is fair to say that both those ideas have been tried before. What these are now are proposals to put forth to government for a reduction of the grey seal population.
In terms of jawbone retrieval, back in the 1980s there was a bounty for turning in the jawbones of grey seals. I believe it was probably $15 in the mid-1980s. Of course, the population levels as described by my science colleagues were entirely different at that time and the objectives were entirely different.
Neither of these concepts is necessarily new. They are conclusions that this committee has come to and has asked government to purse in terms of putting a program in place to have some incentive for seal harvesters to use both of these strategies to help reduce the number of grey seals.
Senator Cochrane: Because they have not done it before? Those strategies have not worked before?
Mr. Knight: The challenge right now is that there is no incentive available for them. Unless there is some funding available, it would be very difficult for industry to implement these strategies. For example, tomorrow we can approve a strategy for seal harvesters to go out and reduce grey seals in a particular area, and we can probably provide a trained fisheries observer to help them determine how many they have reduced. The problem is that there is no incentive for them to do that in terms of using the product to put into the marketplace. That opportunity does not currently exist in a viable manner and there are no other funds available at this point in time. Discussions are ongoing right now to determine a level of remuneration to facilitate that and to find funding from the various levels of government and from industry to help put that in place.
Senator Cochrane: On November 1, 2011, Mr. Gerald Chidley, who is the former Chairman of the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, told the committee that the fishermen were saying that the grey seal impact on the recovery of groundfish is significant. They see what the seals have been doing to the fishing industry. There is no cod coming back. We know that in Newfoundland. The fishermen are telling us that. Everybody is telling us that. There is no fishing taking place in those areas. The concern right now is that we need to get the grey seal population under control. However, we are still implementing ideas that have been initiated before. My question is this: Are we going to have any success?
Mr. Knight: One of the things I neglected to report on in what I said earlier is that there is a significant level of frustration among the advisers who have been coming to our meetings. They are concerned that we have not been able to implement an action plan to facilitate some reduction in that population. I guess the answer to the question depends on whether we are able to find a way, within the various levels of government and industry, to either provide a market that will be financially viable for a harvester to take part in, or if we are able to provide a level of funding for the harvesters to take part through the contributions that might be available through the various levels of government and from industry itself. That is the question we have to address.
As I outlined, we have engaged a consultant to help us make sure that we have a well-grounded economic analysis in that regard. We are continuing discussions with industry and with the various levels of government to see if we can get an action plan put in place that will facilitate the implementation of the recommendations as have been suggested.
Senator Cochrane: But not for this year.
Mr. Knight: It is highly unlikely, given the way that the grey seals congregate and the time it takes to get these things in place, that we will have anything that makes any significant impact in 2012. That is accurate.
The Chair: If I heard you correctly, Mr. Knight, the quotas are 60,000 grey seals and 400,000 harp seals. In regard to the management plan, those numbers are significantly higher when compared to the take last year. How did you arrive at those numbers? I understand it is part of the management plan and the advice you seek and the advice you get, but I am trying to determine how you get to those numbers.
Mr. Knight: I will start off with the harp seals where the quota this year has been set at 400,000. That is the same quota that was in place last year and, as you suggested, the take last year was much less than that. The take last year was in the range of 40,000, and the year before I believe it was in the range of 60,000. What it falls down to is the total allowable catch is much higher than the harvest levels that have occurred in recent years.
In determining harvest levels for any given year for harp seals, for example, we take into consideration the population estimates that science has provided and the advice that they have provided in terms of long-term sustainability. We also take into account the input from industry advisers who met with us here in Halifax. Their points of view were based on a number of considerations, including the available market, the numbers of seals that are out there, and the long-term perspective. They would like to see a longer term, stable quota. That is their view. Industry advisers are also of the view that, generally speaking, we should be harvesting more seals. Obviously there is a wide discrepancy in terms of what the harvest has been in the last couple of years and what the total allowable catch is. That is largely based on the poor market conditions for harp seals.
For grey seals there has not been, in any of the recent years, any viable market for any number of seals. The total allowable catch for grey seals is generally set giving the same overall considerations — the number of animals, the abundance, if it is well into the safe zone of our precautionary framework — and then taking into consideration the input from industry advisers wherein they quite often refer to the ecosystem impacts that Senator Cochrane referred to earlier in terms of the impact on other species. That is, I think, front and center to the advice that we get from industry advisers. That is all taken into consideration when we determine the total allowable catch for any year.
Senator MacDonald: Mr. Chair, before I ask questions, I want to put a statement on the record. Every country has its myths, and one of the great myths of Canada is that it was founded on the fur trade. There is no question the fur trade is very important in the evaluation of Canada. However, even in 1800, which was the apogee of the value of the fur trade, it did not exceed the value of the North Atlantic fishery. The North Atlantic fishery has always been underestimated in regard to the evolution and the strength of the country. I am from a part of the country where I can remember when there was a viable and strong cod industry.
I am no fisherman. My friends would laugh if I described myself to be a fisherman, but I did go to the Grand Banks as a teenager to catch cod and yellowtail. My family fished for years, particularly on my mother's side. Louisbourg was a fishing community for half a millennium, so there is a long history of fishing in my background.
I see the students here from Dalhousie, most of whom would be in their early twenties and they do not remember this. It was a way of life. This is a renewable resource.
I am not directing this question to anybody in particular, but please all feel free to respond. I would like to get all of your perspectives on this.
You were talking about the situation in gulf, but I would like to talk about the situation off the coast of Nova Scotia and get some feedback on that in regard to predation and what is going on with the stock. I am not just referring to the cod stock. I think there are two great fish on the East Coast of Canada — the codfish and the salmon.
I read last week where the number of salmon that return to the rivers on the East Coast of Canada last year was somewhere between 85,000 and 100,000. That is 100,000 fish and there are 400,000 grey seals. I am curious about what is going on off the coast of Nova Scotia as opposed to the gulf in terms of both cod and salmon and the effect you think the grey seal has on both of those species.
Mr. Swain: Most of this is not my area of expertise. I do not work on salmon. My understanding is that there is an issue with marine mortality, but I do not think it is really understood what the problem is there.
Cod off the coast of Nova Scotia — the eastern Scotian Shelf cod stock — like the cod stock in the southern gulf, declined to a very low level in the early 1990s. Natural mortality of the adult cod went to a very high level, about 60 per cent dying of natural causes every year. It has stayed at a very low level since then, but in the last few years there has been some improvement in the biomass of eastern Scotian Shelf cod. This is primarily due to two things: a strong year class that was produced in 2004, and some decline in the natural mortality of adult cod from about 60 per cent dying a year to about 35 per cent dying a year, which is still about twice the normal level for adult cod.
I would say that there is more debate about the cause of the high natural mortality of adult cod in the eastern Scotian Shelf stock. I do not know whether I should give my opinion or whether I should just say that —
Mr. Knight: It is in the SAR.
Mr. Swain: The SAR concluded that grey seal predation was an important component of natural mortality for eastern Scotian Shelf cod but not the main source of this high natural mortality, which was unknown.
Mr. Hammill: Most of my experience is in the gulf. We did a lot of work around Anticosti Island and in Miramichi Bay. Both places are very high or very well known as Atlantic salmon areas. We did not find a lot of salmon in the digestive tracts of seals that we have collected. What we did find, though, obviously if you are going to collect a seal near the mouth of a salmon river, then there is a good chance that you are going to have salmon in it. The conclusion is that it is more of a local issue. It is very much a situation where if you felt that the number of fish returning to the river was too low and there were a lot of seals at the mouth entrance, then removing those seals either trans-location or by killing them would help alleviate the problem for that area.
As far as the salmon are concerned, a general removal of seals would not have much impact.
Ms. den Heyer: I think Doug did a very good job of representing what is going on with 4VsW cod. He has had a fair bit more experience than I have working on it.
Senator MacDonald: We seem to have spent a lot of time over the last number of months talking about trying to find markets for the seals, but I believe we are at the point where the real issue is reducing the number so we can do something about the stock by whatever means.
When it comes to finding markets for the seals, the Department of Fisheries has been involved in this for a number of years. Do you see any real light at the end of the tunnel for us to continue to pursue this option when I think the real issue is dealing with the numbers?
Mr. Knight: That is a very good question, and there is no clear answer.
In terms of light at the end of the tunnel, in the 1980s the markets for harp seal products did not evaporate but went to a very, very low level. Because of that, the annual harvest of harp seals dropped off to very low numbers, in the range of 40,000 to 60,000 per year. Many of those were used for local and subsistence purposes. There was a strongly- held view at that time that there would never be markets again.
That situation did turn around in the 1990s and markets again became very viable. The price for seal products increased to a point higher than they had ever been before, and it again became a very important economic generator for communities and the harvesters involved in that activity.
There are a number of considerations at play today, including the international situation that exists with the EU, currently with Russia. From what I hear from industry, their main hope and optimism at this point in time is the opportunity to market their products in China. If that were to occur, then it is very possible that the economic opportunities could return to the point where they were within the last 10 years and again could generate an important source of income for the industry and the communities involved.
It is tenuous, at best, at this point in time, but it has been as bad or worse going back 25 to 20 years ago. It did turn around. Therefore, people should remain optimistic and keep exploring opportunities.
The Chair: I want to take the opportunity on behalf of the committee to thank you for your presence and for your open answers to the questions we raised. Senators may have other questions. If they do, I am sure you will take care of those at a later date. As always, we reserve the right to call you back as we continue on with our study.
I am delighted with the interaction of committee members with the people in the audience, especially our students from Dalhousie.
Speaking of Dalhousie, our next panel is from that prestigious place of learning. We are delighted to have you here. We would ask that you introduce yourselves and tell us something about each of your roles. If you have opening remarks, we would be delighted to hear them.
Heike K. Lotze, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Marine Renewable Resources, Department of Biology, Dalhousie University: My name is Heike Lotze and I am an associate professor in the biology department at Dalhousie University. I hold a Canada Research Chair in Marine Renewable Resources.
Boris Worm, Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Dalhousie University: My name is Boris Worm. I am also an associate professor at Dalhousie, biology, and my expertise is in studying marine ecosystems.
Sara Iverson, Professor, Department of Biology, Dalhousie University: I am Sara Iverson and I am a professor at Dalhousie University. I have been working on grey seals and harbour seals on Sable Island since 1989 and have worked on a number of other seal populations on the West Coast and in Alaska and I am currently also the scientific director of the Ocean Tracking Network, Canada.
Ms. Lotze: My specialty is long-term changes in marine ecosystems and human alterations of these ecosystems. I will start with some opening remarks.
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. The three of us have studied marine animal populations and ocean ecosystems off Eastern Canada and elsewhere in the world over the last 20 years and would like to provide our combined scientific expertise to the committee with respect to the question from a science perspective, what would be the effects of removing large numbers of seals in Eastern Canada.
We would like to make three major points. The first one is that there are numerous examples from around the world of large scale removals of seals and other marine mammals from ocean ecosystems and in most of these cases these removals had either unknown or no effects on fish stocks. It is therefore unlikely that a seal cull in Eastern Canada would have a substantial positive effect on cod populations.
Our second point is that we have a much better understanding about the proportion of cod in grey seal diets in Eastern Canada now. Recently, very improved methods to estimate the diets show that cod represent only a minor component of the diet of grey seals and that previous estimates have grossly over-estimated the contribution of cod. The majority of grey seal diets consists of fatty forage fish such as herring and sand lance and other small, fatty fish and therefore we would not expect much, if any, benefit of culling seals on cod.
Our third point is that generally the main predator of fish is other fish. Recent research has shown that both the depression of cod stocks in the 1990s and the recent beginning of a recovery of cod on the Scotian Shelf is explained not by the abundance of seals but by the abundance of forage fish such as herring which can greatly diminish the capacity for replenishment of cod. Because seals mostly eat forage fish, including herring, a seal cull could even have a negative effect on the beginning recovery of cod.
These are our three overall points, and I would like now to provide a bit more detail on our main point, number 1, based on my expertise.
Throughout the 20th century, there have been numerous examples around the world where large-scale reductions and removals of pinnipeds have occurred, including grey seals, ringed seals, harbour seals, as well as sea lions and fur seals, usually with the goal to increase fish stocks. Those examples are listed in table 1 that you all should have in your notes. It is from a recent 2011 DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat research document. In almost all cases, these removals had either unknown or no effects on fish stocks, even in cases where substantial reductions of marine mammal populations occurred in the order of 50 to 80 per cent of the population.
Several of these large-scale removals concerned grey seals in an effort to enhance fish stocks, particularly cod, such as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Iceland and the Baltic Sea, with either unknown or no effects on cod or other fish stocks. In the North and the Baltic Seas there were also large-scale natural die-offs of seal populations mostly involving harbour seals and grey seals in 1988 and then again in 2002. In one of these instances, 40 per cent of the population was killed by the disease and then another 60 per cent of the population was killed by the disease. There is no evidence that these substantial removals of seals had any benefits on fish stocks in the region.
Possible explanations for the lack of any benefits on fish stocks include, first, that prey species commonly have more than just one predator; so if one predator is removed, that is usually offset by other predators that move in.
Second, fish are usually the dominant predators on other fish in aquatic ecosystems, so reducing marine mammals would likely produce only marginal increases in fish stocks.
Third, fish population abundance greatly depends on new recruitment which is highly variable and depends on many different factors including environmental conditions, food availability and predation. It is very difficult to predict.
Another point I would like to make is that historically most populations of seals and other marine mammals were much more abundant than they are today. There are some estimates that grey seals off the eastern coast of North America may have numbered 750,000 to 1 million compared to 300,000 or 400,000 today, with over 200 whelping rookeries and, at that time, co-existed with large numbers of fish.
Finally, today most marine mammal populations, including seals, are still recovering from a long history of over- exploitation and bounty hunting thanks to strong management and conservation efforts in the 20th century. In many parts of the world, including Canada, marine mammals have a high conservation profile and are regarded as charismatic mega- fauna. Therefore, culling marine mammals will remain highly controversial and may have significant costs in terms of Canada's national and international reputation for environment and ocean stewardship.
With that, I will hand it over to Sara.
Ms. Iverson: Diet composition is the fundamental component in assessing and modeling grey seal predation and impacts on prey populations. Diets of marine mammals are determined using either recovery of prey hard parts from stomach and feces, or using fatty acids stored in seal blubber which reflect the composition of the prey consumed.
All methods, when used correctly, have indicated generally low to very low importance of cod in the diet of the overall grey seal population. However, the diet estimates used for grey seals in recent modeling efforts have been selected in a biased manner and are not representative of the Atlantic grey seal population as a whole.
I will start with hard parts. Recovered hard parts such as vertebrae, otoliths or fish ear bones from seal stomach contents or feces are used to estimate the most recent meal or several meals at the site of sampling, which is usually only possible near shore and not where grey seals spend most of their time and foraging effort. The fundamental assumption is that all hard parts are equally available to be recovered, but we now know that this is not true from experiments on various species of seals. I have given you a published paper that reviews this. Corrections for complete and partial digestion must be applied to provide reliable estimates. Prey species with robust hard parts such as cod are preferentially retained, while forage fish with fragile hard parts such as herring, capelin and sand lance readily erode and even disappear altogether, resulting in the substantial over-estimation of cod and under-estimation of forage fish in seal diets. These biases were not corrected for in earlier studies, which grossly over-estimated the importance of cod in seal diets.
When reliable and now experimentally confirmed correction factors are applied, the amount of cod in grey seal diets on the Scotian Shelf, representing 84 per cent of the entire Canadian grey seal population using both the shelf and gulf habitats, averaged only 7 per cent during the 1990s, not 12 per cent as originally published, and was 3 per cent more recently in 2010. Even in the individual grey seals taken recently from the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence in the near- shore winter cod aggregations and used for assessing impact of grey seals on cod in the gulf, cod represented only, when corrected, 2 per cent of the diets of females and 16 per cent, not 50 per cent of the diets of those particular males.
The extrapolation of these individual seals which may specialize on these temporary aggregations to the entire Eastern Canadian population is not warranted. The majority of grey seal diets as determined from corrected hard parts is clearly comprised of abundant, higher-fat forage fish.
The second primary method is using fatty acids. They are used to quantitatively estimate seal diets integrated over weeks or months and thus provide a more representative picture of what the seal feeds on longer term and at sea, rather than just the last meal near the haul-out site.
In brief, fatty acids are essentially the building blocks of all fat. Marine species have characteristic fatty acid profiles which are deposited in the fat stores, or blubber, of the seals that eat them. Collaborating with Dalhousie and DFO scientists, we pioneered the development of quantitative fatty acid signature analysis, QFASA, to quantitatively estimate the diets of predators. This has been verified in numerous species, including grey seals, in controlled captive studies.
It is important to note that in the recent paper by O'Boyle and Sinclair, they selectively dismiss the use of diets derived from fatty acids based on a single reference to a small and poorly-conducted study that has been very soundly refuted in the literature, and this is also despite the well-known biases in the other methods.
Although QFASA estimates seal diets integrated over a longer term, both QFASA and stomach and fecal analyses estimate the same dominant prey in grey seal diet. Overall, cod is estimated to comprise an average of about 1 to 3 per cent of grey seal diets with QFASA, and the majority of the diet is comprised of higher-fat forage fish such as sand lance, herring, capelin and redfish.
Grey seals rely on building up fat stores to support several weeks of fasting in both females and males, first during reproduction and pupping and again during spring/summer moulting. During these times stored fat has to be mobilized for energy needs. Energetically it would simply not make sense for seals to target low-abundant, low-fat prey such as cod comprised of only 1 to 2 per cent fat rather than preferred, abundant high fat, 5 to 15 per cent fat forage fish such as sand lance, herring, capelin and redfish.
I finish with simply suggesting ways forward to definitively examine grey seal/cod interactions, studies which we are just beginning and show every evidence of providing critical information. In 2010, collaborating Dalhousie and DFO scientists began a seven-year program under the support of Ocean Tracking Network Canada to directly examine grey seal/cod interactions. Hundreds of cod are tagged and released with acoustic transmitters. Grey seals are fitted with satellite transmitters to provide real-time locations at sea, and a Vemco mobile transceiver records all interactions and encounters between other seals and any tagged fish. As an example, and I show you a figure from 2011, seals spent time in both the Scotian Shelf and in the gulf over an eight-month interval as has previously been documented. However, none of these seals travelled to areas of known cod aggregations. Nevertheless, several seals encountered tagged cod at sea off the Cape Breton area but did not eat them. For example, one seal encountered seven different cod and one individual cod several different times. Detections were of a very short duration or separated in time, which could not have been possible had they eaten them.
I stress that these are the very first data coming from a new and longer-term study which is not yet conclusive. However, with more seals and cod being tagged each year, it represents one of the ways forward in which we can firmly detect and better assess direct interactions in conjunction with diet studies.
I thank you and I turn this over to Boris.
Mr. Worm: I really appreciate this opportunity to share our collective knowledge. I love being in science because it is constantly changing. You are constantly learning things. The three of us are here to apprise you of some very recent developments in our understanding of the ecosystems that we are concerned about off Eastern Canada.
We have these three main points that seals have been removed previously in other regions with no effect and that very recent studies give us a better understanding of the amount of cod in seal diets, which happens to be very low.
I would like to focus on complexities of the ecosystem, which is the Holy Grail of ocean management. These ecosystems are not comprised of two species. They are comprised of hundreds of species that interact in a dynamic way. How do we learn about this? Well for one, we study phenomena. One such interesting phenomenon, which not only concerns scientists here but around the world, is the non-recovery of depleted cod stocks that we see in our regions and that we are so concerned about. This has long been an enigma to scientists, a question that I personally have been grappling with for 15 years or so. Seal predation was discussed as one of many hypotheses explaining this non- recovery.
Recent research has given us a much more sophisticated understanding of the ecosystem dynamics, and this is in very recent papers published last year and this year. This research shows that the depressed recovery of cod stocks in our region correlates with a very large abundance of the aforementioned forage fishes, herring and so-on, or mackerel that increased 900 per cent in abundance as cod stocks declined. Cod as adults feed on these forage fishes much as seals do, as we just heard. These forage fish are basically, if you want, the popcorn of the ecosystem. Everybody eats them, but as the cod were so depleted, they increased to a maximum abundance of 10 million tonnes of forage fishes on the Scotian Shelf alone at its peak. To put this in perspective, this is 50 times more than the combined biomass of all of their predators such as cod, halibut or haddock.
What happened subsequently — and it is the enormous changes in the ecosystem that we are now understanding as we are monitoring this ecosystem — is that that unusual biomass of forage fishes overshot its carrying capacity, outstripped its food supply of zooplankton and crashed back down to more normal numbers. As soon as they crashed, the depleted cod, redfish and haddock stock started to recover. This forage fish biomass can explain both the non- recovery and the subsequent recovery of cod stocks on the Scotian Shelf, something that seal predation cannot explain. So it turns out that the forage fish complex is a major part of the ecosystem that drives the dynamics. This is a paper by Ken Frank at BIO published last year in Nature.
Now is this general, or is this just happening on the Scotian Shelf? I conducted a study with my graduate student Coilin Minto to test the hypothesis that forage fish depress depleted cod stock recovery across 16 ecosystems in the entire North Atlantic, on both sides of the Atlantic, and this analysis has shown that indeed forage fish can suppress the recovery of cod. How do they do this? By feeding on cod eggs and larvae and depressing the replenishment of these stocks.
Fortunately, we do see that recovery is taking place. We see the beginning of recovery shown in figure 2 of your notes, despite the record high abundance of 400,000 grey seals on the Scotian Shelf. This recovery is not consistent with the hypothesis that seal predation is a primary driver in the dynamics of cod stocks. Because seals primarily consume forage fish it is even conceivable that a reduction of seal numbers would lead again to an increase in those forage fish which could have some negative effect on cod recovery.
As we are coming to learn that the ecosystem has complexity that extends beyond the relatively simple interactions between seals and cod and that forage fish appear as a dominant driver of ecosystem dynamics, I would just like you to appreciate that ongoing research is focusing on those interactions more so than the seal interactions which have been resolved to be relatively low.
I would like to finish with a thought experiment. This is what Albert Einstein did when he came up with the theory of relativity. It was all done using thought experiments. So if you look at figure 2. Do the thought experiment, what if we had done experimental removal of seals on the Scotian Shelf as it was discussed during the low point of the Atlantic cod stock on the Scotian Shelf in about 2000 or the early 2000s. Had we done an experimental removal of seals there by now we would certainly conclude that this experiment was successful, that indeed, as we removed seals, cod and other groundfish stocks started to recover. Of course this would be a completely wrong conclusion because in fact we did not remove seals and cod and other groundfish recovered, regardless. This, for me, is an important insight: You cannot do experiments on this scale and come up with the right conclusions. It is simply inconclusive as all the other experimental removals or natural die-offs of seals have shown in other places. There are dozens of examples of that. So it does not really make sense to conduct another one at great cost.
I would like to conclude from this panel's three points that, based on the scientific literature and our very recent understanding of change in the ecosystem of Eastern Canada, it seems highly unlikely that the culling of seals would have a measureable benefit on the recovery of cod or indeed other ground fish. Given the complexity of the ecosystems that I just highlighted, it could even have a negative effect. Now on the other hand, a large-scale cull would certainly incur very significant costs because seals compensate for mortality through increased pup production so we would have to do this year after year after year.
These are not just financial costs but also political costs as they may negatively affect Canada's reputation as a steward and leader in marine science and ocean management. When I go to conferences internationally and I talk to people about this, I get a lot of shaking heads because they have seen this done in other regions before. People are aware of this and it has never shown any benefit on the recovery or the dynamics of fish stocks in those regions.
With that I would like to thank you sincerely for your attention. We will take questions.
The Chair: Thank you very much. You have provided us with some very interesting information this morning. I have some questions myself, but I have to wait. I will pass the opportunity over to our deputy chair, Senator Hubley.
Senator Hubley: Again, that was a wonderful presentation with a great deal of information for us. Since we are looking at the scientific perspective, I would like to welcome the students from the biology department of Dalhousie. I think we were all quite impressed that you have shown interest in this committee and how decisions are made, and it is never easy. It is always complex and there are many things to consider when we are making recommendations. Having said that, I certainly appreciate the input from each of you.
You focused mainly on the cod versus the seal, which is fine, but we are going one step further. I think we are taking into account that we do have a large number of seals in one area of the environment. I assume that they do eat and they are eating fish very likely. If the cod have gone, I believe seals will change their diet and move into other species. Coming from P.E.I., I am fearful that that might include lobster or other shellfish, so our concern goes beyond the fact that the cod have been decimated and whether or not we can look to the seal as the reason for that. That is probably a decision that is past us all. However, going forward, we have to look at a balance in nature.
Another component is the industries that depend on the fishery. If we have to make big decisions on recommendations, does the grey seal play a role in diminishing those stocks?
Ms. Iverson: I will just start with the diet end and that is that grey seals, like many other marine mammals, really rely on more energetically-profitable species. It is actually believed that what Boris described in terms of when the large cod were completely over-fished and decimated, it allowed the release of that large predation pressure from cod on these forage fish. It is exactly at that time that grey seals were able to increase because of being able to feed on these high-fat forage fish. They are not going to switch by any kind of choice to something like a lobster that is very unprofitable and very difficult to handle, extremely low fat. As long as these forage fish, which are not commercially important, are available, there is plenty of that available for them to eat, as Boris has described.
Mr. Worm: Yes, I would like to emphasize that. You talked about the balance of the ecosystem. Unfortunately that concept is also outdated. The ecosystem is never in balance. It is constantly in flux and our ability to manage those fluxes intelligently is close to zero. We have to, in a sense, go with the flow and see how the ecosystem has changed and adapt our harvesting strategies to that.
The big change that we have been seeing is the collapse of cod and the following 900 per cent increase in forage fishes. I would not call this an imbalance in the ecosystem. It is a change in the ecosystem and it is a change that had certain consequences and it is a change that partly we brought about.
Can we undo this change? No, we cannot, but it undid itself by outstripping its food supply and coming back to more normal levels, and this causes the cod stocks to increase on the Scotian Shelf.
You should realize that we were very concerned about the Scotian Shelf cod stocks just as much as the ones in the Gulf of St. Lawrence because when they were at low abundance and we were not even fishing them anymore, they kept declining. They were not even stable. They kept declining. This is exactly what we see in the Gulf of St. Lawrence now. We only recently stopped fishing them and they keep declining despite us not fishing them anymore. Something is eating away at them. It was the same on the Scotian Shelf. Well, it turns out that we can explain that phenomenon and the recent recovery with the dynamics of the forage fish complex.
I am not saying that this is the only consideration. There are other things going on as well but this is something. This is a hypothesis that can explain both of these phenomena, non-recovery and recent recovery.
Your concerns about seals eating a lot of fish are generally a valid one because it has been valid in other countries that have taken the step of culling seals to increase fish biomass. However, as we have learned from the historical evidence, and this is a DFO research document, it has never worked. Why should it work in this case? It will incur significant costs and it may actually do harm, given the context of the ecosystems that I just outlined, the forage fish in particular, which are the main food item for grey seals. This would be my answer.
Senator Hubley: If the number of seals was looked upon as a resource and treated as such with a viable harvest as we do with fishing licences, would that be beneficial in this situation, or would it be detrimental to have a seal fishery and develop markets for products that have been identified. Is that something you could see working? We do it with many other species, is what I was saying.
Mr. Worm: Yes, definitely. I mean, it is something that could be done on biological grounds given the high abundance of seals. They could sustain some fishing pressure and we actually know that.
Your question was whether it is beneficial or detrimental to the ecosystem. I think the honest answer is that we do not know and we will not know because we will not have a control in that experiment as in all the other so-called experiments. It would be another manipulation of the ecosystem, but to do it with the rationale of helping the ecosystem I think would be ill-advised.
Senator Hubley: I think it would be looked on as an industry that could be developed. I do not think it would be either looked on as being detrimental or beneficial to the environment. I think we would be looking at a sustainable sealing industry, and that has certainly been some of the evidence that has come to us.
Ms. Lotze: From a biological standpoint, the grey seal population is abundant enough to potentially sustain a seal hunt. From the evidence that Boris presented, if we were to reduce the number of seals, that could induce a further increase in the forage fish abundance and they could have a negative effect again on the cod and other groundfish due to the fact that they eat the larvae and the juveniles. Another prospect could be to develop a stronger commercial fishery for forage fish. It would be a similar experiment, I guess.
Senator Hubley: We hear anecdotal evidence from fishers. How does the scientific community balance that anecdotal evidence with the work that you do?
Ms. Lotze: To give you an example, I work quite a bit in the southern North Sea on long-term changes in animal populations. One big change that happened there is the recovery of big numbers of harbour seals and grey seals in that area. They were really low as they were here in the fifties and sixties. The hunting stopped and these seal numbers increased exponentially like they did here and like they did in many other parts of the world since we stopped hunting them. Fishermen in that region were really concerned about that, as they are here. These seals were increasingly seen as a pest and should have been culled because they were a pest.
You see these exponential increases and then these disease events happened. A lot of people and scientists thought that maybe they had reached high abundance in the population causing them to get disease. These two disease events happened. It turns out that it was a disease that was transmitted by dogs to the seals, so they had not developed any immune system for it.
In the long run, it did not stop the recovery. They had an exponential increase, then a dip, then an increase again, followed by a dip, but they are still on the increase.
The scientists then tried to reconstruct and evaluate the historical abundance of seals in that region, such as how many seals could be supported and what was natural for that ecosystem. It turns out that the numbers we have there now are about half than the numbers that were there around 1900 before the big commercial hunt started. It is increasing exponentially, but it is still not where it used to be 100 years ago. That relates to how we perceive balance or a natural baseline. That eventually tuned down this argument that they are a pest and need to be culled because it is an unnatural abundance, so that argument has largely stopped now in that region.
Mr. Worm: I have a brief remark about anecdotal evidence. I had students interview fishermen, and I collaborate with industry myself because I think they have a lot to bring to the table.
With regard to seal and cod, fishermen often see a very particular interaction which is the interaction of seals that have learned to follow fishing boats and eat cod or other fish that are dangling, immobilized, from fishing lines. It is an easy lunch. It is something that is normally costly for them to do because they have to hunt down those cod, but in those cases it is because they are immobilized. That is what fishermen observe and they are allowed to shoot those problem seals. However, as we are learning, it is not representative for what seals do when they are going about their normal business. The fishermen observe a particular event, but it is not what the majority of the seal population does. These are a very few seals, and they are intelligent, as we are. They follow fishing boats and do that.
Ms. Iverson: I would like to comment on the incidental evidence.
Grey seals are very easy to observe. Under water, the interactions that are happening with other fish that are eating fish and marine mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and whales that are eating fish are not seen.
There is no question that grey seals are adaptable and there are some individuals which may target something like Boris just described. There certainly is no question that when you find grey seals in the short-term winter cod aggregations, those grey seals should have a fair amount of cod in their stomach. However, it is like putting up a number of neighbourhood bird feeders with sunflower seeds and observing that the birds that come there eat sunflower seeds and then extrapolating to the entire population of Eastern Canadian birds that they all eat sunflower seeds. We know that is not true. We have no problem understanding that some of the birds are coming to that feeder.
The really critical thing is that we carefully use the diet information appropriately. All methods are valuable and complement each other. We simply need to be using the most relevant ones that represent the overall population, not just a specific small segment.
Senator Cochrane: Mr. Worm, you are saying that once the seals are there, they keep growing and they eat the cod so that eventually there will be no cod. If there is no cod, then the seals will eat everything else. In other words, we are going to have a depleted fishery.
Mr. Worm: I think that was a misunderstanding. First of all, seals eat very little cod because for them it is like us eating Brussels sprouts. They want to eat something that is richer, so they eat hamburger, which is the forage fishes. This is what they mostly eat and which they have always mostly eaten. This is why they come to this region. This is why whales come to this region. This is why upwelling regions are so rich in seals and whales because they have a large abundance of forage fishes, not because they have a large abundance of cod.
It is the other way around. Those fish that are by far the primary diet item for seals, whales and porpoises fortunately are not the fish that we value and the fish that we are trying to eat. They have different choices than we have.
I am using diet estimates. The expert for the diet of seals is Sara, and she has worked on this for 15 years.
Senator Harb: Thank you very much for your excellent, scientifically-based presentation and evidence. It is very useful for the committee.
I did put those two questions to department officials. I wish they had answered at least one other question, which is to look at best practices in other countries that have done culls. What was the result? You have supplied us with that information, and I want to thank you very much.
This plays into the notion that if you do something once and fail, do not do the same thing expecting a different result. You mentioned Einstein's theory of relativity. Well, this is Einstein's theory on stupidity, doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result. That is what I hear you saying, right?
My question concerns the zonal advisory process. We keep hearing about this group that looked at studies and that they have results. Are you aware of their work? If so, could you provide us with your thoughts on that?
Mr. Worm: The table that we gave you was part of a document that was submitted as part of the zonal advisory process, so this is part of the thinking there. I personally was not at the meeting because I was in Europe at the time, but I think you were.
Ms. Iverson: Boris is correct that the document that Heike has presented was part of that. As well, some of the corrections that I presented in terms of the correction factors for diet estimates for hard parts are also contained in papers from that.
Senator Harb: What about the recommendation of the FRCC that is asking the government to proceed on an immediate basis, I suppose, to kill 31,000 animals just as a precaution, just in case? What is your comment on that?
Ms. Iverson: I guess from two standpoints as a scientist, to reiterate what this panel has said, there is no way to evaluate the effects of what that would be. We have no control. It is not an experiment. It is an extermination of animals for the purpose of exterminating them for no other reason. Therefore, as a scientist, I would need to have very good, concrete evidence that there was a justified reason for it, and I do not.
As a resident of Canada and a Canadian scientist, I would like to respect and be proud of my country. I truly fear that the international repercussions would far outweigh anything in terms of trying to understand how Canada could be considered a responsible steward of their oceans.
Mr. Worm: As I said, I do work with the fishing community as well because I think we feed off each other. They have often knowledge that is important and great, but it is often very local knowledge, what they have observed in their particular fishery, in a particular place.
Our role as scientists, why we are paid by society, is to provide a bigger picture. This is what we are paid to do. This is what I see as my vocation. The bigger picture includes looking at evidence from other countries. It includes looking at other regions. It includes looking at other components of the ecosystem that other groups who may be more specific in their view would not see or recognize. This is the only reason we are here. We are trying to provide this bigger picture for you to make an informed decision that is not based on very local, very specific knowledge, but on a larger compilation of scientifically valid facts.
Senator Harb: Would you agree, then, it would be irresponsible for the government to proceed with the culling of seals in light of the abundance of scientifically-evident information that is on the table now?
Mr. Worm: In my view it would be a waste of taxpayers' money and, as such, it would be irresponsible.
Ms. Lotze: At this point in time, based on the knowledge we have, I would strongly suggest it is very irresponsible.
Ms. Iverson: I guess the endpoint is I would even wonder what economic and political repercussions Canada would experience, such as an international boycott of all sorts of things besides just fisheries products. I just wonder if people are thinking strongly enough about the international repercussions of this happening.
Senator MacDonald: I thank all of you for coming. I have a great regard for scientists. I am a former student at Dalhousie, and we have some people here from my old alma mater.
I have a number of questions. I am looking at your three main points. You say that it is unlikely that a seal cull in Eastern Canada would have a substantial positive effect. You say that you would not expect much, if any, benefit of culling seals, and the seal cull could even have negative effects on the recovery of cod.
There seems to be a little bit of assumption in all those. There does not seem to be a lot of quantitative data, but I know you are well-studied in this and you have a lot of background in this area.
I would like for you to respond to some of the other things, such as the transmission of parasites causing an increased mortality of fish; destruction of spawning which affects reproductive success. How much work have you done on these factors? I wonder if you can discuss them with us.
Mr. Worm: The parasite issue is inherent in ecosystems. Parasites are a part of ecosystems. They are part of regulating dense populations. Seals carry parasites; cod carry parasites. Almost any wild animal carries parasites, so there is a purported link between a large abundance of seals.
In particular, I guess you are alluding to the seal worm. They are also found in some other fish. The idea is that there is a transfer of that parasite from one to the other.
I personally have not seen a scientific study that has quantified this link. I know it is something that fishermen are concerned about, less so as a survival issue with respect to cod than a marketing issue because those fish are hard to market. I am not aware of a scientific study that may be out there. I have not seen one that quantifies that link between seals, seal worms and cod.
Senator MacDonald: I just want to respond to that. First of all, when it comes to marketing cod, there is no cod to market, so that is not really an issue. There is not much of a market for cod anymore because we cannot catch them.
In terms of parasites in a living being, of course we all carry parasites. All animals do. My mother worked in the packing section of the National Sea Products plant in Louisbourg for many years. There was a lot of cod coming through and they had very few worms in those cod.
There was a story in the paper just a couple of months ago about a small local fishery on the south shore. At one time there was one person to pick worms for every five people packing, and now there are five people picking for every two people packing. Obviously there is an increase in the infestation of worms in these fish. There has to be some correlation. It has to come from somewhere.
We know that everything has parasites, but I am sure if all of us were heavily infested with parasites we were not infested with 10 years ago, I think the relative state of our health would be declining.
Like you say, it is a complex question, but there is more to look at than just how much is being eaten and what is being eaten.
I do want to make a couple of other points. I heard Ms. Iverson mention that these forage fish are not commercially valuable. I was in a Tokyo fish market in January and I was in supermarkets in Tokyo and Seoul. If she saw the price of ocean perch, which is redfish, or Boston bluefish, which is pollock, or herring, I think she may have a different perspective. I think there is a lot of value in these fish. You cannot just brush them off as if there is no commercial value. They have commercial value. In fact, as the greatest fish, the cod, continues to struggle to recover, the value of these forage fish only goes up.
I want to make this point: I do not hunt. I am an animal lover. I do not like to see animals destroyed under almost any circumstance. I do know that when the grey seal population was at 12,000 seals 50 years ago, that is far too low for a critical mass. That is a real danger point, and there is no question about that.
I have said this before and I am going to say it again. I am a big fan of the walrus, which used to be indigenous to this area of the world. Of course, it is a very shy and retiring animal. It does not like people. They have been reduced now to about 22,000 in the Arctic Archipelago. I do not see them recovering down here.
I think you mentioned that at one time there were 750,000 to perhaps 1 million grey seals on the East Coast. When was that and what was the estimated volume of fish stock at that time?
Ms. Lotze: That estimate basically comes from the first Europeans coming here and natural historians documenting where all these seal rookeries were. Grey seals do not like to be disturbed by people, so they documented where these rookeries were and how many seals were there.
There is much better evidence from the North Sea that grey seals used to be the major seal in the southern North Sea, and they took off when people colonized that area in the Middle Ages. They were basically absent for over 500 years and only came back to re-colonize the area in the 20th century when protective measures came in and there were protected beaches where they could haul out again. It is very likely that there were many more grey seals colonies very close to shore. Now they are restricted to islands offshore where people do not go and disturb them while breeding. It is a changed ecosystem from when the Europeans first came.
Senator MacDonald: There used to be a substantial fishery around Sable Island, but of course the fishermen have abandoned Sable Island. They said it has been given over to the seals. It is not that the seals have not been given a break or two; they have.
Ms. Lotze: To your comment about the fish stocks, there have been good historical estimates on the abundance of the cod biomass in the mid-19th century on the Scotian Shelf, about 1.2 million tonnes compared to something like 40,000 tonnes today, if at all, so it is a huge difference.
Senator MacDonald: We all know what caused the destruction of the cod fishery. We cannot do anything about that. I am more concerned about how we can restore it, and that is why we are discussing these things.
I believe it is a multifaceted thing. There are many things we do not understand, but I have yet to be convinced that a reasonable cull of these animals will not have some positive effect. I am not saying it is the whole solution, but it is hard for me to believe when the numbers seem to be so disproportionate that there cannot be some effect.
I want to ask you one more question. This gets back to hunting in general. Some people think that commercial hunting of a pinniped is wrong. Again, I am not a hunter. We have white-tailed deer hunts in this country. We have bear hunts. We have caribou and moose hunt. Europe has wild boar. I want to make this point because I think it is an important one to make. These are all approved hunts, but I am sure that the percentage of wounded animals that go off into the brush to die over a 24- or 36-hour period are substantially greater than the number of animals that are successfully culled. I mean, the number of animals that you attempt to cull, that would be successfully culled, would be about 100 per cent. I am curious about a seal hunt itself, a seal cull. What is your opinion on the culling of animals for commercial reasons?
Ms. Lotze: In terms of the terrestrial wildlife we hunt in North America, as far as I am aware there is no commercial hunting of any of these animals. Most of it is recreational. We are not culling any terrestrial mammals anymore. We have done that in the 20th century. There have been huge culls of coyotes in the eastern states of the U.S. In the fifties and sixties they culled 80,000 coyotes every year for 10 or 15 years and actually evaluated the effect of that cull. The goal was to increase deer population and to reduce the mortality of sheep. There was a short-term increase in the deer population and then a decline again because the deer was hit with disease. There we are again — no predator controlling the deer population, so an unintended consequence, no real effect, no long-term benefit on the deer.
Senator MacDonald: With all due respect, that is not my question.
Ms. Lotze: Also there was no benefit on the sheep mortality because they also died from other causes.
My point is that we do not commercially hunt wildlife on land anymore and we do not cull mammals anymore. Why would we do that in the sea?
Senator MacDonald: Well, again, that is not my question.
Ms. Lotze: But it is a value judgment.
Senator MacDonald: No, but I am asking you. Do you think there is something fundamentally wrong, from your point of view, with taking animals from the ocean, like pinnipeds, and commercially selling their hides or taking their product and turning it into Omega-3 oil? Do you think there is anything wrong with this fundamentally?
Ms. Lotze: Fundamentally, if the population is healthy and can sustain a hunt, from a biological perspective there is nothing wrong with it.
Senator MacDonald: Do you think the population is healthy?
Ms. Lotze: Yes.
Senator MacDonald: Thank you.
Ms. Lotze: But we have no scientific evidence that the culling of seals will help the recovery of cod.
Senator MacDonald: I appreciate that, but you think the population is healthy.
Ms. Lotze: Yes.
Senator MacDonald: Okay, thank you.
Mr. Worm: I agree with the previous speaker that the population is healthy and on biological grounds there is no reason to not hunt them. In fact, we do hunt other seal species at substantial numbers, hundreds of thousands a year.
The question is whether there is a market for those products. Those seem to be disappearing right now, but maybe there are other markets. I think it would be a waste to do it if there is no market for the product.
Fundamentally, if there is a healthy population and there is a sustainable, careful harvest — and we know this commercial harvest can easily exterminate populations — but if we are doing it carefully on fundamental grounds, we cannot disagree with this.
Senator MacDonald: Okay.
Mr. Worm: We do disagree with the commercial hunt of whales internationally.
Senator MacDonald: I am with you on that one.
Mr. Worm: Yes, there is a value judgment there. The Japanese do justify culling whales to save fisheries, so there is some value judgment there. All we are trying to do here is to infuse this discussion with scientific arguments.
Senator MacDonald: We all make value judgments. Thank you.
Ms. Iverson: I think it is very important that people distinguish a cull from a hunt. A hunt is a very different thing where animals are used purposefully and it is sustainable. It is very different than exterminating animals to exterminate them. I think it is very important to keep those two things separate.
Senator MacDonald: Yes, I think we know that.
Senator Cochrane: You were talking about the North Sea fishery. How have they kept the balance and what did they do to keep the fishery industry alive? You were talking about the seals and all the problems they had. Well what happened after or during?
Ms. Lotze: Well, again, I do not think they tried to keep a balance, but the ecosystem is changing and has been changing over the last 500 years with strong fluctuations in species.
The seal colonies I talked about are mostly in protected areas in the southern North Sea. In those areas there are no big commercial fisheries at the moment. It is more like a flat coastal sea. The major fisheries are offshore in the deeper North Sea.
Senator Cochrane: You are talking inshore and out, the deep water fishing?
Ms. Lotze: Pardon me?
Senator Cochrane: You are saying that there is mostly just an inshore fishery.
Ms. Lotze: In the North Sea the main commercial fisheries are offshore.
Senator Cochrane: Offshore, but there is no inshore fishery.
Ms. Lotze: There is a fishery for shrimp and flatfish. Seals eat a lot of flatfish, but in a way they do co-exist in that area. I do not know whether they do so happily.
Senator Cochrane: The grey seal population Atlantic-wide has increased 34 fold over the past half century from about 13,000 animals in 1960 to 330,000 to 410,000 in 2010. That is quite an increase. Why has the grey seal population increased to such an extent since 1960?
Ms. Lotze: Because in 1960 they were at their very low point. They probably were lower before because for centuries they were strongly over-hunted and depleted. As I said before, when Europeans first came, the numbers were probably double the numbers we have today. They were very depleted and were at the low point when we started monitoring them and getting numbers. That is why we started with low numbers. As with most marine mammals around the world in the early 20th century, these populations were at really low numbers. Many have been extirpated and others have started to recover. If resources are abundant and these grey seals need food like herring and sand lance, then they can increase.
Senator Cochrane: And cod.
Ms. Lotze: Three per cent in the diet. They need habitat. If that is available, they do increase. That is basic biology, not restricted by habitat, not restricted by their main forage fish diet. As well, the natural predators they used to have are not that abundant anymore.
Senator Cochrane: How does DFO go about estimating the size of the grey seal population?
Ms. Iverson: Through annual pup production, which can be counted and then you can estimate the number of females that must have been available. I am not an expert, but it is counted through the annual pup production on Sable Island and in the gulf.
Senator Cochrane: Are aerial surveys done?
Ms. Iverson: Yes, they are. There are aerial surveys to count the pup production because it is difficult to count the whole population otherwise, but the models are fairly sophisticated. For the Scotian Shelf, we believe the estimates are pretty robust.
In answer to your question, it is important to remember that once the cod were reduced by fishing, that huge release in forage fish provided all that food for grey seals. That is why I believe they increased.
Senator Cochrane: Do you think seals are the major predator for the Atlantic cod?
Ms. Iverson: No, I do not believe that. As we mostly know, large cod are by far a larger predator on smaller cod than other species. Fish are by far the largest predator of other fish.
The Chair: We certainly want to thank our panel. You have provided us with some great information and cause for discussion and future discussion around this table. Thank you for taking the time this morning to speak to us.
Colleagues, I would like to take the opportunity to once again to welcome representatives of the Eastern Fishermen's Federation. I thank them for taking the time this morning to avail themselves of the opportunity to present to us.
Our process is that we give you the opportunity to introduce yourselves, tell us a little bit about what you do, present opening remarks and then we open up the floor for questions from the senators to get some feedback. With that, whoever wants to go first, feel free to do so.
John Levy, Secretary, Eastern Fishermen's Federation: I am John Levy and I am with the Eastern Fishermen's Federation. I am also President of the Fishermen and Scientists' Research Society. I do a lot of collaborative marine science work. I also am on the water. I own a fish business as well and actually catch fish, too, so I see firsthand what is transpiring on the water.
Ronnie Heighton, Board Member, Eastern Fishermen's Federation: Good morning. My name is Ronnie Heighton. I am also a member of the Eastern Fishermen's Federation. I am President of the Northumberland Fishermen's Association, the Gulf Fleet Planning Board and Vice-President of the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters. I fish in the Northumberland Strait just west of Pictou where the ferry crosses across to P.E.I.
Wilford D. Smith, Board Member, Eastern Fishermen's Federation: My name is Wilford Smith. I am a member of the EFF. I have been involved in the industry as a fisherman for the last 49 years. I noticed a great decline in the cod stocks when the grey seal showed up about 20 years ago.
Senator Cochrane: Where does Wilford come from?
Mr. Smith: Sou'western Nova Scotia.
Senator Cochrane: Southwestern Nova Scotia.
Mr. Smith: Yes, Shelburne County.
The Chair: Go ahead.
Mr. Levy: I am from the south shore of Nova Scotia, the Chester area, if that did not get explained. I am going to do the presentation and we will go from there.
On behalf of the Eastern Fishermen's Federation, we want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss and highlight our concerns regarding grey seals and their impact on our industry. Many of us in the fishery have been participating in longstanding discussions on the growing grey seal population. It is a subject that rears its head frequently in our industry and government circles, yet as we discuss and debate the way forward the populations are expanding both in numbers and geography. This is having a major and negative impact on our wild fish stocks. In order to arrest the growing population there needs to be action, not long-term pondering of solutions if there is to be any hope of reducing the grey seal numbers and recouping some of the ground we have lost.
In the late 1990s concern over growing grey seal numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was raised at the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee. At that point many of the members were not affected and there was barely agreement to include it as a discussion item. If we were to ask to have this on an agenda today, all representatives would be eager to include it, as the herds have impacted most every area in Atlantic Canada.
The Eastern Fishermen's Federation has made many presentations over the years about seals. The last formal one was in September 2001 to the Eminent Panel on Seals. Their stated purpose, according to the terms of reference, was:
To evaluate the current state of the scientific knowledge and to provide advice on long-term strategic strategies for management of seal populations in Atlantic Canada.
Following their report, history shows that despite the work done and the conclusions made, again there was no action to gather the kind of information that the panel felt was required to move management concepts to the forefront. We have had a decade to implement the recommendations, and again no action.
In February 2004, the Fisheries Research Council of Canada stated that it "supports recent proposals to develop a limited harvest of grey seals." Again, in 2011, the FRCC raises the ongoing issue with seal predation on groundfish stocks. In both instances the advice was largely ignored.
We also know that key findings of a DFO-Industry-Provincial Task Force on Grey Seals and Fisheries Interactions identified a gap in the scientific knowledge regarding interaction between grey seals and economically important fish species. This work, while identified, was never moved to the next step due to lack of funding.
We know that the grey seal population is robust and expanding. The continued escalation of animals is having a negative impact not only on groundfish stocks, especially cod, but on the commercial seafood industry in the Atlantic region as a whole. All parties have identified the need to protect and rebuild groundfish stocks and consideration to other species is now required, yet decision makers are reluctant to move to the next step — action.
DFO has looked a bit at the impacts on cod recovery, but this in itself is only one small aspect of the discussion. Presently DFO statistics indicate a rise from about 10,000 grey seals in the late 1960s to over 400,000 in 2010. This admission should be enough to indicate to decision makers that the situation has gone on long enough unchecked and an immediate response is required. If there is no action for another 10 years, where will we be then?
In the Report of the Eminent Panel on Seal Management, panelist David Vardy provided the following statistics on seal predation in a letter to the chair:
The total prey taken by seals in Atlantic Canada was estimated for 1996 to be in excess of four million tonnes (Hammill and Stenson, 2000), with over three million tonnes of fish species and just below one million tonnes of invertebrates. Capelin was estimated to be the main prey component, followed by sand lance, Pleuronectidae (various flatfish species), Greenland halibut, Atlantic cod, Arctic cod and redfish. Capelin was estimated at over one million tonnes. These estimates by Hammill and Stenson, in their 2000 paper, have since been subject to revisions, many of which are described in our report, particularly those relating to Atlantic cod.
These statistics paint a very clear picture around the predation issue with the seal population and is a very strong indicator about the contribution seals are making to the decline in groundfish.
A study entitled Impacts of Grey Seals on Fish Populations in Eastern Canada is again raised by DFO Science that includes the National Capital Region, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Gulf, Quebec and the Maritimes. It was completed in late 2010. Again, the science community looks at the need to study what numbers would make an effective cull as well as other key considerations to do with predation of the groundfish species, particularly cod, in the gulf region.
As fishermen, we expect that where there is still some semblance of groundfish species left, the seals are continuing to take away from any hope of rebuilding these fragile stocks as time marches on. We also know that they have moved on to consume other species where available. Herring fishermen are reporting increasing numbers of grey seals. Lobster fishermen are now hampered by them in their day-to-day operations.
Now that DFO is actively using a precautionary approach to manage fisheries, it should be applying the fundamental principle which, from their own documents, states:
Under the Precautionary Approach, where there are threats of species or irreversible damage to a species, lack of scientific uncertainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
If this approach were truly applied and used for grey seals, action should have been taken more than a decade ago to protect other vulnerable species.
Experience has demonstrated that it has not proven viable to have a legitimized hunt. According to DFO stats, 1,472 grey seals were harvested in 2008; 254 in 2009; and only 7 in 2010. Industry realized in the late 1990s that grey seals were becoming a very serious problem at a very alarming rate. A task force of fishermen and scientists was formed and considerable energy went into looking for markets for pelts and moving ahead on a responsible hunt as well as other options. The group also tried to look at other methods of reducing the herd.
Sadly there was not enough market to allow it to go forward despite the group's best efforts. It was difficult to get everything organized and the continued pressures to punish Canada for any type of hunt plagued our best intentions. All the while the population continued to rise.
A commercial hunt cannot be successful given the international overtones as well as the explosion of the grey seals. Therefore, a cull should be considered in a well-organized, strict management regime and in a widespread manner to ensure the population is brought under control before further damage is done.
The industry realizes that there are many complicating factors around any discussion involving a cull. The social expectations regarding seals, ongoing scientific debates and the increased awareness by fishermen like ourselves of a problem raging unchecked, causing serious impact to our environment, have led to considerable talk and, again, no action.
Those of us on the side of the debate favouring a well-managed cull continue to be challenged by animal rights activists. The fishing industry does not have the same financial backing and the wealth these groups have at their disposal. Too often their messaging makes it difficult or impossible to be heard by decision makers who are afraid of the public backlash that may result if the activists' positions are not maintained. In most instances animal rights groups have hampered responsible efforts by fishing organizations to have an orderly, managed seal reduction.
This same problem of interaction has plagued the harp seal discussions about how to control the burgeoning numbers. Again, as a plan was contemplated, the harp seal herd grew to over 10 million animals, and now we will likely never see enough action to deal with the problems it has created in the marine ecosystem.
Denny Morrow, who represented the Grey Seal Task Force, was quoted at an FRCC meeting in 2010 as follows:
As the herd has increased 10-fold in the last 30 years we have seen areas that used to be productive with cod and other groundfish species become barren of those species. We have watched this desolation spread from waters around Sable Island eastward to Cape Breton and now westward through eastern 4X and the Gulf of Maine.
I won't venture into estimates of tonnage, but I will say that fishermen in Scotia Fundy know what they see and the feeling is that we will never rebuild cod and other groundfish stocks in this region at the current grey seal population levels.
We have participated in studies, forums, scientific projects, and the list goes on, to ensure responsible decisions and actions can be taken. We realize that any decision must be defendable both from a management perspective as well as from the public perspective. However, we cannot continue to wallow in indecision. We must try to reduce the numbers to more manageable levels to have any hope of rebuilding the fish stocks most affected by the grey seal. As you can see, this has not produced any concrete action that has benefited our coastal waters now infested with grey seals.
We hope to be able to discuss openly with you during the question period some of our observations and ongoing concerns and help the committee understand the gravity of the situation. We continue to recognize that action is the key. We cannot continue to study the issue forever looking for solutions.
That is respectively submitted by myself, John Levy; by Ronnie Heighton; and by Wilford Smith, all of the Eastern Fishermen's Federation.
The Chair: Thank you very much for your presentation. Senator Hubley will be our first questioner.
Senator Hubley: Welcome to each one of you. I thank you for coming from your communities to be here to share with us your information on the fishery. As you know, we have heard some scientific evidence from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Dalhousie University, and now we have the fishermen here.
One of the things you highlighted in your presentation this morning, Mr. Levy, is inaction. You also pointed to the fact that the animal rights groups have, in some way, impacted that, and of course that goes back in history to the seal hunt as it was portrayed incorrectly worldwide. It certainly has caused many problems for an industry that I think can be viable and should be viable but also should be well maintained and well run. What recommendations do you think this committee should consider when we try to present a focus on reducing the number of seals that will perhaps satisfy the international community? I guess Canada has been wrongly nailed with that reputation. I guess Canadians understand the relationship between making a living, being sustainable industries, being responsible people who use a particular industry. I think probably Europe is a little different. It was pointed out at a previous meeting that our main problem will be on the international level and obviously that has proven itself out. That will have to change by looking at the seal as a resource and as an industry that can bring prosperity to our local communities and fishers in this area. I am just wondering if you would comment on how you feel or what recommendation we would have to make to help alleviate that pushback from other parts of the world on what is very much a Canadian issue.
Mr. Levy: Well, what we are faced with right here with the grey seal is a Canadian issue. It is an Atlantic Canada issue.
First off, I want to say that a lot of times fishermen were portrayed as basically rednecks on the water: If you can kill it or catch it, so be it. However, that is not true at all. I mean, I am on the Northern Right Whale Recovery Team. I have worked with a lot of activists to try to save them, and if I felt that the grey seal was endangered, I would be one of the first ones to speak out and try to protect the darn thing. That is just who I am and a lot of other people are as well.
The first thing that has to be shown is that we are not here as fishermen to try to reduce something that does not need to be reduced. That is not the case at all. As an example, in the 1970s there were only tens of thousands of these grey seals, and even then there was a cull, from the 1960s to the 1980s. At that time, when the numbers were low, the cull was going on by DFO to keep the numbers down because at that time they thought that they were detrimental to the fish stocks. Yet here we are in 2012 with somewhere around 400,000 of these animals showing up in areas where traditionally they were never, ever present.
I mean sure, there were different people explaining anecdotal information that hundreds and hundreds of years ago the grey seal perhaps was in western Nova Scotia. Well, I do not know what was around hundreds and hundreds of years ago. I was not around then. We are here now. If they were here, the ecosystem adapted to what is here now. These seals are showing up in areas where they traditionally have not been at least in the recent hundreds of years. They are an invasive species. They are disrupting the ecosystem. I mean, how do you explain to somebody in Europe, or anyone, whose mindset mindset is already there? It does not matter what you say or what evidence you put forward. It could be the best evidence in the world, but if somebody's mind is already full of ideas, whatever information you give him is just going to spill over. That is just the way it is. It is not as if over in Europe that they do not reduce certain species when they get out of whack. I mean, look at the muskrats with the dikes. There are many species throughout Europe that they really go at and reduce their numbers, so I do not understand. It is all right to reduce the numbers of species in Europe when they get out of whack to protect their ecosystem, their environment, but yet it is not right for us in Canada to reduce our numbers when something gets out of whack. I do not understand that. That is just illogical. When people come back and say, "Well, Canada should not be doing this because —", that is being a hypocrite. That is my feeling about it.
Senator Harb: Thank you very much. Thank you for your presentation.
You seem to be working on the premise that if the government was to move ahead with the idea of killing seals that the cod will recover. We heard from very eminent scientists just before you arrived who told us otherwise. In fact, they told us that through science they have shown the fact that seals eat other fish and that other fish eat the cod. In other words, they are telling us that you may have a counterproductive result here. If you kill the seals, you are not going to help the cod. In fact, the number of herring might increase and therefore you may reduce even further the level of the stock. What do you have to say?
Mr. Levy: I am glad you mentioned that because here is a prime example: Codfish eat herring; seals eat herring. The herring stocks are being decimated. The quotas keep being reduced. There are areas now where herring come to spawn and where no fisheries are allowed because there are no herring left. If somebody is stating that the food for codfish and the food for seals is — and what they are trying — I do a lot of collaborative marine science work as well. I have studied this extensively. Basically, they are saying that when the cod are smaller, or the larvae, that the herring are eating the young codfish. As the codfish get bigger, the codfish then prey on the herring for their food. Well, the grey seals are preying on the herring as well, as well as other species and the codfish. The larger the cod, of course, after they get to be a certain size, they do not have any predators except for grey seals and the fishing environment. Now the food for the cod is decimated by fishing as well as the grey seals. The fishermen have been taken out of certain areas. There is no longer the food. The larvae, or the smaller codfish, are not being eaten by the herring anymore because the herring stocks are in trouble. They are down low. Somebody who said that is not putting the facts across properly.
Mr. Heighton: I would like to comment on that one, too. I come from the gulf region. DFO Science in the gulf region has stated that the grey seal is detrimental to the recovery of cod in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Some of your scientists, I would take it, have likely been Scotia Fundy scientists, but in the gulf it is completely different.
Senator Harb: None of the scientists who appeared before us told us that the grey seals' diet — is any more than 25 per cent of their diet. That is a maximum. The scientists who appeared before us earlier told us in fact that the cod in the seals' diet is only 3 per cent. They have proof of that.
This is really important. Politicians are not telling you the truth, the naked truth, and that is the fact that the reason for the depletion of the cod stock is because of us as a predator, overfishing. We overfished the stock to the point where one scientist from a very prominent institute told us — the Royal Society, I suppose — that when a stock reaches a certain point in terms of depletion, there is a huge risk that it does not matter what you do because the stock will not come back. Perhaps as politicians we have to take another look at the policy in terms of how is it we are approaching this whole notion rather than giving you the impression that if we go and kill 73,000 grey seals, you are going to be in good hands. The truth of the matter is you have a problem and we have to fix it. We are not really fixing it for you and that is why you are frustrated. I understand that.
Mr. Smith: How many days has this scientist spent on the water? I have been on the water, like I said, for 49 years. Twenty years ago we had a good fishery. If we were anchored on a school of fish hand-lining — that is, using one hook — and all of a sudden the fish disappeared, up came a seal with a big codfish in his mouth.
The reason that seals have a certain percentage of codfish in their diet is because mostly all they eat is the stomach out of a codfish or any groundfish. All they want is the liver and stuff out of them. He ate the stomach out of that, went down and came back with another one.
Like I said, this happened about 20 years ago. From then on our cod stocks started depleting, our groundfish stocks started depleting, and the grey seal started increasing.
So, yes, as a fisherman with knowledge of the facts, of being on the water and seeing this, if the grey seal population is reduced to where it was, our cod stocks would come back and our herring stocks would come back. It is not just the cod that they eat. They eat all the groundfish— pollock, haddock, cod, herring and mackerel. I have not been able to catch a mackerel or a herring in my harbour home for the last 15 years because of the grey seals. What they do not eat they drive offshore.
Another reason why we have this problem with the grey seal is because foreign companies and boats have more or less depleted all the natural predators of the seal, which is the killer whale, the white shark and the mako shark. The natural predators of the seal are gone, so this is also helping to increase the population of the seal herd.
As a fisherman with facts, I would say that the cod stocks would return and all the stocks would return if the grey seal population is reduced.
Mr. Levy: I have a scientific mind as well, so I just do not go and listen to any one person. I definitely do not listen to politicians half the time, but I do get the facts. When I look into something, I look into the facts, and here are the facts.
In 1992, the whole 4VsW area was closed because of the low biomass of codfish. There has not been any fishing effort whatsoever on cod in that whole huge area. There was a fair biomass of cod still there when the fishing was stopped. Here we are in 2012. There is less codfish in that whole area, and I am talking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of square miles, than what the biomass was when that was closed in 1992. The only thing that has changed is that there is no fishing effort because fishermen are not allowed to take one codfish. However, the grey seal herd has quadrupled and quadrupled and quadrupled. Those are facts. That is not fishing activity. They were not allowed there. Again, I look at facts. I do not listen to people, just the facts.
Senator Cochrane: Thank you for your presentation; I really appreciate it. You are so frank.
We had DFO people here this morning, the first witnesses, and they were telling us that a decision has been made as to when the seal hunt will take place this year. Apparently groups of individuals met recently to discuss how they are going to overcome the problem in regards to those seals that are supposedly eating the cod. From my understanding, one of the things they are going to do is they are going to take the skull of the seal to analyze the problem of the large number of grey seals.
They are also going to do something else. They are going to kill seals on land or in open water. I think that is what I wrote down. Anyway, there is another issue.
Were you any of you people at that meeting to try to solve the problem of the number of seals that are there killing the cod?
Mr. Levy: I am assuming that this might have been the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee meeting; is that what you are talking about?
Senator Cochrane: Probably. I am not sure of its title.
Mr. Levy: Pardon me?
Senator Cochrane: That is what they have decided for this year, yes.
Are there any other issues that you could put forward whereby we could solve the problem, and if not solve the problem, help identify the problem and do something about it?
Mr. Heighton: I went to the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee 15, 16, 17 years ago. At that time grey seals were not even on the agenda. Since that time, the grey seal now consumes about a third of the agenda, so you can see their importance.
I have talked to a lot of fishermen's representatives from Iceland and they all seem to tell me the same story. In Iceland, when cod stocks start to drop, they instigate a cull in the seal herd and the cod recover. It may be a good step for Canada to look at other countries and what they have done and how the cull has impacted the recovery of fish species. It may be the time for Canada to look elsewhere for guidance.
Senator Cochrane: Have they done that?
Mr. Heighton: Not to my knowledge, no.
Senator Cochrane: Is it too late?
Mr. Heighton: I do not think so. It is never too late.
Senator Cochrane: Anyway, I am rather concerned about your problem. I am concerned for fishermen in particular because it is their livelihood
John, I totally agree with the words in your briefing. Thank you.
Mr. Smith: Can I say one more thing?
You asked if it is too late. In southwest Nova I do not think it is too late because we still have a cod fishery there and we still have an active fishery. However, if this problem keeps going — I mean, every year our quotas are being cut, cut and cut. So, no, it is not too late. If we can get action on it now, I think our stocks would rebound within three to five years. I do not think it is too late.
Mr. Levy: It was mentioned that when they did samples of what a grey seal was eating, it was only 3 per cent. Well, I have been involved with that for quite a few years. They take the samples around Sable Island. Naturally, there are no cod left in that area. Therefore, the percentage of cod that they are eating is going to be very minimal. If I only eat pork and all of a sudden they are looking in my digestive system for chicken, they are not going to find it because there is no chicken for me to eat. Well, that is the same with the grey seals around Sable Island.
When fishermen told them to try areas off of Cape Breton where there were actually codfish and finally they did samples of grey seals there, they found that way over 50 per cent of their diet was cod. If you do samples in an area where there are no codfish, naturally you are not going to find codfish in the diet of a seal. That is just the way it is. I mean, that is common sense. However, when this information is portrayed here, they do not explain where they do the sampling. They do not explain what species they are preying on. They just give these facts and then they are so easily manipulated.
Senator MacDonald: Gentlemen, thanks for coming.
There are a few Levys in my hometown of Louisbourg. A lot of south shore people came up around the turn of the century. Although fishing was a secondary industry, I think rum running was their main industry then. A lot of people made a fortune back then doing that.
Look, it is great to have you gentlemen here. People who have been on the water their whole life, and many in my family were, have knowledge of what really cannot be replaced or replicated because they have hands-on knowledge of the industry. You make a great point. I wish I had raised it earlier. I knew it but I missed the opportunity to raise it.
The one thing you hear from the fishermen, particularly in Cape Breton, is how the seals that are feeding on the cod just take the bottom out of them. They may only be taking 10 per cent of the fish, but they are killing 100 per cent of the fish. I think that is something that is missed in the scientific studies.
You also make that point about taking samples where there is no cod. Of course, an animal will eat what is available to it. There is no question of that. I do find it hard to believe that a pinniped will sit there and let all the cod go by and wait for the herring. I am sure it will take whatever it can grab.
Since you people have spent a lot of time on the water, I would like you to give me your first-hand experiences, not just in finding or seeing codfish that have been partially eaten, but also the increase in parasites and worms in the cod. I would like to see how the cod compare in southwest Nova compared to the cod you were fishing 40 years ago.
Mr. Smith: I am glad you brought that up. Like I said, I have been on the water for 49 years. I never saw a worm in any kind of a fish when I first started. I mean, I never heard tell of it. In the last 15 to 20 years, codfish — well, I would not take one home because they are full of worms.
Senator MacDonald: Yes.
Mr. Smith: We catch a lot of sculpins for lobster bait, and when you cut them open, they are solid full of worms.
Senator MacDonald: Sculpins?
Mr. Smith: Sculpins, solid full. Well, what else have they got to eat? All of our groundfish are full of these worms. They started showing up in the codfish about 15 or 20 years ago, one or two, but now you cut one open and it is 50 or 60. However, I had never, ever seen one in a haddock, and now you have to watch very closely because they are showing up in the haddock.
Senator MacDonald: Haddock?
Mr. Smith: They are showing up in all the groundfish, so a big concern is that the few fish that are left are not going to be marketable.
Senator MacDonald: All these fish feed on the bottom, right?
Mr. Smith: Yes.
I would like to say another thing. We also have a halibut fishery. It is getting almost impossible to go halibut fishing now because once they bite the hook and they come up on the ground line, the seals attack them, eat the stomachs out and rip the skin off. They are not marketable. It is destroying valuable product that could be sold. I was talking with one gentleman the other day. Out of fourteen halibut, he got one. They are that destructive.
Senator MacDonald: In terms of how they are infecting the fish stock, I was always a big fan of any flatfish — yellowtail, flounder, grey sole. I am just curious: Do you see any effects on those fish in terms of either parasites or destruction?
Mr. Levy: Actually, I can speak to that personally. A couple of years ago I was the President of the Grey Seal Research and Development Society, and like I mentioned I am also the President of the Fishermen and Scientists Research Society. We work on science. The Fishermen and Scientists Research Society is not a lobby group. That is what we do. It is completely facts; completely science.
We found a marine worm specialist because we wanted to study American plaice. We wanted flatfish, and American plaice is a type of flatfish. As you know, there are so many different kinds of flounders. Anyway, that was the only thing that was studied for this grey seal parasite about 20 years ago, and we got the same guy that did the study at that time. We actually spent the money to get this done on our own. We caught American plaice. He could not believe the difference in the number of grey seal parasite worms in the American plaice now compared to when he did the study about 20 years ago in the same area. We tried to do this as closely as possible to what was done "x" number of years ago. As I mentioned, he could not believe the increase in the number. It was just phenomenal. Even he could not believe it, and he was a worm specialist. So, yes, they definitely are in the flatfish as well.
Mr. Heighton: I spent nearly 30 years auto-trawling by dragging a net on the bottom for flounders in the Northumberland Strait. Back about 10 years ago, as the seal herd was increasing, all types of flounder — yellowtail, black back, American plaice, grey sole — started to disappear. The more seals we saw, the more that the groundfish disappeared. It came to a point about 10 years ago we could no longer afford the fuel for the little bit of fish we were catching.
We have not touched the groundfish fishery there for 10 years, the flounders. Nobody has been bothering them at all. The odd time somebody would put on the equipment and go out and try it, they were unsuccessful. There is nothing left. In our area it started with the cod. It went to the white hake. The white hake is extinct. There are none. The black back flounder is gone. The yellowtail flounder is gone. The grey sole is gone. American plaice is gone. Now the grey seals in our area are turning to rock crab.
Mike Hammill behind me is a scientist. He can tell you that there was a large portion of soft shell rock crab in their stomach content in the fall of the year in the area that I am from. Our fishery is disappearing in more than one way. Unless something serious is done in the next few years, there will never be another groundfish fishery in the Northumberland Strait as long as I am living.
Senator MacDonald: I know it is sort of a narrow species, small species, but you are all familiar with the Tusket River and the Atlantic whitefish, which is an endangered species. I am curious about your experiences with that fish in terms of its numbers and in terms of infestation. Do you have anything to say about it? Are you familiar with it?
Mr. Levy: I am familiar with the fish species, but as far as an interaction with seals, I am not sure. Like I say, I deal with facts and I can give an explanation from being on the water, but as far as those facts, I would have none.
Senator MacDonald: All right. I just wanted to ask.
The Chair: Thank you again for your presentation.
Mr. Smith: Could I make one last comment?
As our fisheries disappear, our communities are disappearing, too. Southwest Nova Scotia depends totally on fishing.
The Chair: Thank you very much.
Before we hear from our next panel, I want to advise senators that we have some media in the room. To make sure that we are taking care of things properly, could I have a motion that it will be agreed that the media organizations may take some film or take some photographs in a non-disruptive manner during the proceedings? If nobody has a problem with that, I would like to have a motion.
It is moved by Senator MacDonald, Senator Hubley. All those in favour?
If they are disruptive I will have to deal with that, but they do not look too disruptive to me.
We will continue our study into the grey seal population off Canada's East Coast. We have heard from a variety of individuals here this morning with a variety of opinions. We now welcome the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture from Newfoundland and Labrador and the Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture from Newfoundland and Labrador.
As usual, we will give you an opportunity to introduce yourselves and to give opening remarks, following which senators will have an opportunity to ask questions. Welcome and thanks for taking the time to travel from Newfoundland and Labrador to be here today.
Hon. Darin King, MHA, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Newfoundland and Labrador: Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon to everyone. It is indeed an honour for us to be here and to have an opportunity to share some remarks. I am going to share some prepared remarks and then provide an opportunity for you to ask myself or my deputy, Mr. O'Rielly, some questions. We would be more than happy to respond.
My name is Darin King, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Alastair O'Rielly, Deputy Minister, Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Newfoundland and Labrador: I am Deputy Minister of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mr. King: It has been 20 years since the announcement of a cod moratorium on northern cod and today there remains no clear answer and no significant change in the ecosystem. An ecosystem that was once dominated by cod is now dominated by seals.
Through the years there has been considerable debate and much rhetoric expressed on seal cod interactions. I would like to thank you for taking the time to focus on the grey seal issue and for taking a holistic approach to studying the management of the seal population of Canada's East Coast, including its impact on Atlantic groundfish stocks.
Over the past 60 years the historical ecosystem balance has been disturbed by fishing power, high seas fishing, and failed resource management regimes. We need to move now towards a balanced, informed and carefully managed approach to marine resource utilization.
The explosion of the grey seal population in Eastern Canada from approximately 10,000 animals in 1960 to more than 400,000 today is clearly having an impact on the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Scotian Shelf ecosystems. The current population size is the largest measured in the past several hundred years, in fact. New breeding colonies of grey seals have been established in the Northeastern United States.
A reduction in natural predators, bounty efforts and limited commercial harvesting have all impacted on the recovery of grey seals, which are at an all-time high and continue to grow.
While overfishing also contributed to reduce cod stocks in Cape Breton waters and the Scotian Shelf in the 1990s, these fisheries have been greatly reduced or closed for the past 20 years; yet cod stocks have continued to decline in those areas.
Cod populations in the inshore and offshore waters of Labrador, eastern Newfoundland and the Grand Banks have declined by over 90 per cent over the past three decades. They are now so low that they have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as being actively endangered.
In a peer-reviewed scientific advisory report entitled the Impacts of Grey Seals on Fish Populations in Eastern Canada, the following conclusion was reached:
A review of the weight of evidence for each cause supported a conclusion that predation by grey seals was likely the greatest contributor to increase mortality in large southern Gulf cod.
This is a significant conclusion, as the report also concludes that:
If current levels of productivity and natural mortality were to persist, the stock is estimated to decline to levels near extirpation within 40-50 years.
The report goes on to say that the grey seal predation is also contributing to the high natural mortality of winter skate and white hake, both of which are also at a high risk of extirpation in the southern gulf.
Seals are efficient and adaptive predators, and their impact on the fishing industry has continued to expand. Grey seals can travel hundreds of kilometers to and from breeding grounds, and they are known to establish new rookeries within a decade. These seals also transmit a parasite that accumulates in the flesh of cod and other groundfish species, resulting in increased processing costs and reduced marketability. This parasite has increased significantly, in particular in 4T cod — which would be the Cape Breton waters — between 2006 and 2008, and there are reports that it has increased along the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador as well.
Preliminary research on the impact of grey seal predation on cod recovery suggests that the removal of seals could in fact help the recovery of the cod stocks in some circumstances. Sinclair and Boyle's research on seal/cod interactions published in the Fisheries Research March 2012 edition infers that seals have contributed to increases in natural mortality since the late 1980s and they have contributed to the lack of recovery of the stock since 1993.
The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, FRCC as I will refer to it, is a well-respected group of advisers with a balance of scientific and academic expertise. It is comprised of members who were appointed based on their merit and their standing within the community.
In September 2011, the FRCC released a report entitled Towards Recovered and Sustainable Groundfish Fisheries in Eastern Canada, in which they recommend that efforts should start immediately on an experimental reduction of grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. It also recommended that scientific meetings be coordinated to discuss whether the reduction of seals, including harp seals, would enable or enhance the recovery of groundfish stocks in other areas, such as the shelf off Labrador and Eastern Newfoundland.
We believe the time has come to take action based on these recommendations. The scientific advisory report provided guidance as to the number of grey seals that must be removed, to lower the mortality of cod and to increase survival levels to where population recovery is, in fact, possible.
The report further concluded that a grey seal harvest of this magnitude would not pose any risk of irreversible harm to the grey seal population itself.
We have seen the groundfish industry in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence come to almost a complete stop. The grey seal population is now spreading into the northern gulf and the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is feared that without timely and effective intervention, the cod stocks in these areas will further decline and additional fisheries will have to be closed.
Furthermore, while reports referenced here have focused on grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fishermen for many years have expressed serious and similar concerns about the impact of the harp and hooded seals on the recovery of the cod stock off southern Newfoundland and eastern Newfoundland, as well as the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
As many people know, Newfoundland and Labrador is struggling to deal with an ever-increasing harp seal population. The Eastern Canadian harp seal herd now is estimated to be about 9 million animals. We have been advocating for quite some time that this population needs to be reduced. We are aware that estimating the direct consumption of cod by harp seals is indeed hard to quantify, but there is clearly some direct mortality associated with harp seal predation on cod and certainly on the prey species that cod rely upon for their survival.
The quantity of cod estimated to have been consumed by harp seals has increased since the late 1980s due primarily to increased occurrences of Atlantic cod in the near-shore diet samples. The reduced availability of capelin is also a critical factor in the slow recovery of the cod. Therefore, harp seals are also influencing cod recovery indirectly by preying on the capelin.
The Recovery Potential Assessment for Atlantic Cod in Newfoundland and Labrador concluded that marine mammals could impact cod dynamics indirectly through competition for key prey such as the capelin I just referenced. It also notes that the high estimates of harp seals that consume huge quantities of prey are potential threats to cod recovery.
There have been suggestions for several years that the growth in these populations will cease and the numbers will begin to decline. However, the herds have continued to expand. Thus, from our perspective, to suggest we simply wait until the seal population has declined from natural processes is not acceptable nor, in fact, reasonable as this process could take decades or even longer to return to some historical level of ecosystem imbalance.
An average harp seal consumes 1.4 metric tonnes of fish per year. If you do the mathematics, this equates to more than 12 million tonnes of fish per year being consumed by seals, given the numbers that we have to use from the last census. As an effective predator and with population levels never seen before, it is clear that this consumption by seals is having a significant influence on the ecosystem. As we strive to improve our science, we must, in the meantime, take reasonable, common sense actions if this issue is to be addressed and the recovery of cod stocks is to be enhanced.
On a separate but related issue, the sealing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador continues to be concerned with the precautionary approach framework established for harp seals. The Atlantic Seal Management Strategy provides a framework that identifies precautionary and critical reference limits that define healthy and critical zones of abundance, along with management actions triggered when zone thresholds are exceeded, to reduce damage to our fish resource.
Concerns have been put forth by industry regarding the application of this approach to harp seal management. Currently, the precautionary and critical reference levels are defined as N70 and N30, which in practical terms is 70 per cent and 30 per cent of the maximum observed population size. The current management approach developed in 2002 uses model-based estimates of total population to assess the status of the population. However, the estimated population of harp seals has increased significantly in past years, resulting in an increase in these reference points.
We believe that to maintain a resource 300 per cent to 400 per cent higher than its historical level is a flawed approach, far beyond what conservation would require and what a balanced approach to ecosystem management would demand.
The FRCC recognizes that an emerging strategy for an ecosystem-based management of fisheries is to structure an entire suite of fishing mortalities to maintain a balanced harvest, one that attempts to retain relative biomass ratios. While it is recognized that the benchmark for such a strategy can be difficult to determine in food webs and ecosystems that have undergone significant shifts, the concept of fishing to maintain key predator/prey ratios within historical bounds is judged to be a valid objective of ecosystem-based management, especially when focusing on rebuilding our groundfish population.
The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador supports the FRCC recommendations for the strategic removal of grey seals in specified areas; for more target research on the effect of seals in groundfish recovery; and for research on the impact of reduction of seal populations in other areas including the Newfoundland and Labrador shelf.
The FRCC's mandate concluded, as many would know, in October of 2011. However, its report entitled Towards Recovered and Sustainable Groundfish Fisheries in Eastern Canada, in response to a request from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada of the day to develop a long-term strategic approach to the sustainability and the conservation of Eastern Canada groundfish fisheries, was very validating. In that report, they recommend that efforts should start immediately on an experimental reduction of grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. We also suggest that a process such as that undertaken for grey seals will be very helpful in determining the impact of harp seals on the Newfoundland and Labrador cod stocks and in defining necessary mitigation issues. While some research on harp seal/cod interaction has taken place, we believe it requires a focused, systematic approach such as described in the grey seal report. We have asked Fisheries and Oceans Canada to undertake a similar exercise in relation to the harp seal population of Eastern Canada.
Local knowledge from fishermen and fish processers at sea provides traditional, ecological knowledge of seal abundance, and you heard some of that a few moments ago by the previous presenters. The nature of seal interactions with cod is intensifying. Fishermen have long observed seal predation on groundfish, including belly biting of large fish, an increase in parasite infestations, as well as seals being pulled out of fishing gear in locations never before documented. As the distribution and abundance of seals expand, the recovery of groundfish stocks will continue to be compromised. The FRCC concludes that seals are an external factor that exerts both direct and indirect effects on the ecosystem where cod once thrived.
During the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee meetings in Halifax, industry supported an ecosystem approach as well to aid in cod recovery but also to protect other stocks it knows grey seals are eating when cod is not available, and I reference lobster, crab and herring in particular. Concern was expressed on restricting grey seal removals to 4T, noting that the grey seal population migrates to areas outside of that particular zone. Industry also expressed a view that such removals be extended to allow Newfoundland and Labrador sealers to participate in grey seal removals without having to travel to this particular zone.
Depending on the scale and scope of grey seal removals, dispatching 70,000 animals each year for a period of five years is recommended. The total cost may extend to millions of dollars.
The grey seal population is approximately 400,000 animals, while the harp seal population is approximately 9 million. Can you imagine the cost associated with having to reduce the harp seal population due to the negative impact on the ecosystem? If left unchecked, the future cost to the international seafood industry will be devastating.
It is estimated, as I said before, that harp seals eat 12 times as much as Canada's commercial fish harvest. Grey seals represent 5 per cent of the total population of harp seals. The damage to the marine ecosystem and the cost associated to manage 9 million harp seals requires DFO to take affirmative action on grey seals and harp seals and to vigorously support a commercial seal harvest. Without such a harvest to bring some balance to human intervention in the marine ecosystem, future resource management initiatives to help fish stocks recover may have to be considered.
The removal of seals for sustainable commercial development far outweighs the image of a cull. A cull would result in little or no utilization of the seal resource and conflict with international agreements on the sustainable and wise use of the world's natural resources.
Given the large harp seal population, a cull of these seals to protect commercial fish stocks will be required and will be very costly if the commercial seal harvest ceases. Seal populations must be part of a larger management strategy, in our view. A continuation of a seal harvest is an important element in bringing greater balance in prey/predator relationships involving seals and fish species and in securing the future of our fishing industry and of our dependent communities. In this regard, it ought to be remembered that while fish are caught by a few people, they are indeed consumed by many people.
Utilization of wildlife through a sustainable harvest such as the Canadian seal harvest is viewed by the international wildlife conversation organizations, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature, to be a valuable mechanism for the conversation and management of wildlife resources.
The formal position of this United Nations affiliated body is captured in a policy statement on the sustainable use of wild, living resources developed at the second World Congress in Amman, Jordan, in 2000. In it, they recognized that both consumptive and non-consumptive use of biological diversity is fundamental to the economies, cultures and well- being of nations and peoples, and that the use, if sustainable, can serve human needs on an ongoing basis while contributing to the conversation of biological diversity.
Furthermore, one of the three pillars underlying the world Convention on Biological Diversity introduced at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 is the sustainable use of biodiversity. This international treaty guiding the conservation of wild flora and fauna is an international agreement to which Canada is a signatory. The overall objective is to develop national strategies for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Surely, it should be a reasonable basis for managing all species, including seals.
It is the position of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador that we should pursue the management of fish stocks and seals within an ecosystem context and that we should uphold our responsibilities to the world's biodiversity and the culture and economic traditions of our societies insofar as, and as long as, they do not impoverish nor imperil the world's biodiversity. We therefore support the proposed limited reduction in grey seals and recommend this policy be extended to the harp seal population through both a commercial harvest and more directly applied population management efforts.
I want to thank you all very much for your patience in listening to my prepared remarks, and we will certainly do our best to answer questions if you have any.
The Chair: As I said earlier, it is wonderful to have the opportunity to hear from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador on this very important issue. As you talk about in your remarks, the concentration of the grey seals is around this area more so than anywhere else. We are planning on travelling to Sable Island tomorrow to have the opportunity to see things firsthand. We have had many reports over the last little while regarding the south coast of Newfoundland, an area we are both very familiar with.
With that in mind, I turn the floor over to Senator Hubley who will start off our questions.
Senator Hubley: Welcome to both of you. It is encouraging to have both the minister and the deputy minister from Newfoundland and Labrador with us today. I think it underlines for us all the importance of this issue and how important it will be to find a solution to the problem. Perhaps your province, more than any other province, has suffered from the decline of the fishery. You would know firsthand what that means to your communities and to the people who are living in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
I would like to ask a question that was presented this morning. Information was given to us this morning by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It was that the total allowable catch for seals is fairly large. It is huge in some cases. I think for the grey seal it is 60,000. I think if I am correct, for harp seals it is 400,000. Only a portion of that is harvested, and I am wondering if you might comment on that
I would also like you to comment on the variety of avenues that we are going to have to pursue. It will not be just one way of handling this issue. I do not believe there is a silver bullet. Besides the total allowable catch, there was funding for a bounty retrieval of the jawbone; targeted removal on land; and the open water pilot projects for the use and marketing of the seal products. I am going to leave that question with you.
Mr. King: We will certainly do our best to respond. If the committee is fine, Mr. Chair, we may speak interchangeably. I am the political head for government, but I am not necessarily the expert on some of these issues. If you are okay with that, we will kind of intermix, but I will make one quick comment before the deputy speaks.
With regard to the issue of the 400,000, we have had a significant challenge on the marketing side of some of our sealing products. We have been working more recently with DFO and with Russia and on some challenges in China to get markets for seal products. It has been the practice that we only harvest what we can use and sell, and this has been a significant contributor in reducing the harvest. Alastair will elaborate on some other things, but I guess the short answer to that one is that we only harvest what we are able to use personally or to market.
Mr. O'Rielly: Senator, thank you for the question. You are correct in the numbers as to what the allowable catches are.
In the case of the grey seal, there really has not been a historic commercial use of that resource, so the level of effort required to develop markets is quite significant. It appears as though seal products that are normally marketed, such as pelts or skins, are not as easily used and are not as marketable for grey seals. There needs to be a lot of work done to develop product forums that are acceptable and meet the needs of global markets.
The work in the grey seal area in the last few years would suggest that such markets are available, particularly in Asian countries, China in particular. There is a lot of indication of a willingness or receptivity to grey seal products. However, the whole issue of how you go about a commercial exploitation of grey seals and develop the product forums and find markets is going to require considerable development effort and time.
The minister also referenced the issue with harp seals and the market challenges in the last number of years. Markets had been looking very promising for harp seal products five or six years ago. Prices actually went to very high levels and there was a tremendous resurgence of the harvest activity with a lot of upward potential indicated. We have the EU ban, and certain activities have resulted in a ban at the moment in Russia. There are challenges in developing other markets, which again are very receptive. Again, China is one market that shows a high level of receptivity to these products.
Our belief and experience of industry had been that there will be huge opportunities to market these products if we have unfettered market access, but there is a need to do the required developmental work. All of that to say that that is a much more desirable way of approaching the management of the resource and the utilization of the resource than it would be just to have a cull.
Senator Hubley: Some of the information that has come to us relates to the medicinal properties that seal oil affords us. In a country where we are very health conscious and always looking for remedies, there seems to be or could be a demand. We did hear from one presenter who found that, yes, they did produce the Omega-3 oil from the seal. It is very rich. There are many claims of what it could do for us as people. We all go back to when we lined up for cod liver oil pills. Certainly our family did. It seems to me that selling the benefits of seal product to the world, whether it be meat for human or animal consumption, plus emerging medical discoveries regarding properties that the seal will afford us, may not be such a problem in the future. We have heard from a company in Newfoundland called Terra Nova. It seems to be a very confident company, well run, but their capacity was such that they could not handle the 73,000 grey seals that we might have to reduce the herd by. I am wondering if you could share with us any new products that we might market and discuss the possibility, on a provincial level, of setting up a processing plant to handle the seal and to utilize its properties.
Mr. O'Rielly: You are correct. I think the new developments in pharmacological or nutraceutical products from seal oil offer a lot of potential and work. A lot of research has been done to document the health benefits of oil products.
Our belief in the policy is that we can fully utilize all aspects of the animal in terms of the pelts for clothing and other items. Meat products are highly acceptable in Asian markets. In fact, many of the organs also are available for either food products or nutraceutical applications. There are a variety of opportunities to develop these markets. The market access issue is significant and the developmental effort is significant.
You made reference to physical resources, plants and so on. We do not see that as an impediment in terms of either technology to extract products or to process food products or to distribute these products. The real challenge is on both ends of the spectrum in terms of having a harvest strategy that is predictable, consistent, manageable and sustainable.
On the other side, we need opportunities in terms of unfettered markets and developing markets, particularly in China, and also in traditional markets for pelts, such as Russia. That has been a real challenge for the industry this past year. That issue was visited upon us just before Christmas. The challenging issues relate to market access. It is market access imposed by governments for a variety of reasons, one understands, but it is not because of weak consumer demand. All indications are that there is a huge consumer demand for these products if we have the opportunities to access those markets and develop the products.
Mr. King: The challenge is the political/bureaucratic block. It was only yesterday that we had a discussion with an individual in Newfoundland and Labrador involved in seal products, and they are going to China. They can sell 100 per cent of their product today. The demand is there. The challenge is getting it through the political/bureaucratic red tape, for lack of a better phrase. As Alastair said, it has nothing to do with the ability to sell the product; it is just getting over that political hurdle.
Senator Harb: I do not understand why we keep hearing about worms in fish and the fact that they are caused by the seals. I did a little research on this and found out that in fact most fish, whether on this side of the Atlantic or on the European side of the Atlantic, have worms. The only difference is that the worm or the parasite varies. It may have what one will call the name of Anisakis, which is mostly found on the European side, and as well as the Phocanema. Supposedly both of those parasites are abundant in the ocean. What is normally done, whether in Europe or elsewhere, people go right to the fish and remove the worms. I do not understand why we keep waving this flag when we should just keep our head down and clean the fish like everybody else does around the world, rather than saying we have a problem when everybody else has the same problem with the worm. It is basically a protein. If you cook it, it is not going to kill you. In fact, no one has been killed as a result of worms being in fish because those worms die as soon as you cook the fish for a minute or so.
Mr. O'Rielly: I am not a parasitologist, so I cannot really speak to the technical aspect of that.
Our experience in Newfoundland is that we really have not had a problem with parasites in cod off the northeast coast or even most of the south coast in living memory. It is an exceptional circumstance to have a significant infestation or presence of parasites.
That has changed in recent years with the increased population of seals. On the south coast it was almost unheard of to have worms in fish, and it is now quite prevalent. We see a very clear linkage to the increased presence of the parasites with the increased population of seals.
The other element of your comments have to do with why worry about that. It is not the case, as you describe it in terms of global markets for white flesh products, that these are normal occurrences. As you say, I am sure there is a presence of parasites in all fish everywhere, but it is not a huge issue. As I described, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland it was never a huge issue, but it is now. World markets are very reluctant to accept the presence of parasites as being an acceptable product, and it is a consumer preference issue.
I think you are right. I am not aware there is any harm when the product is cooked, but it is still aesthetically unpleasing and people do not find it acceptable, so it has to be removed.
The cost of removing it is huge. People have tried to develop very sophisticated technologies using cameras and x- ray technology to identify the location of these parasites in fish flesh and to look at ways of removing them. However, there is no substitute for the human eye and the physical removal of them. The cost of doing it in relation to lost yield and labour inputs make it prohibitive in a commercial sense.
Senator Harb: Europe has it; they have it everywhere. They have it in England, and they do not have the grey seal that we are talking about. They find the same kind of worms in cod there. I am at a loss trying to relate the grey seal presence to the infestation of cod. I have a problem with that.
Mr. O'Rielly: I understand, but I do not think your information is correct as to the prevalence. There may be a presence in some areas and I cannot suggest otherwise. However, the most significant body of cod that is currently harvested on the planet is in the Bering Sea where the quota now is in excess of 700,000 tonnes. They virtually have no problem with parasites in the flesh of cod. The Alaskan resource, which is the second largest Pacific cod, does not have a significant problem either. In either case, there is no real significant presence of either grey seals or other seals that would cause that phenomenon. It is in the U.K., I believe. I think you are right about that.
Senator Harb: A lot of people have come before the committee to tell us that, frankly, government policy — not your government but the federal government or policies of various governments — is largely responsible for the depletion of the cod stock. Some people brought forward the notion of overfishing by international fishing boats off your coast, off the 200-mile limit. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Is there anything the government can do or should do at the international level to address this issue? There are some who believe, perhaps along with the overfishing of humans, that the overfishing by foreign boats off your coast has also had a big role to play in the depletion of the stock.
Mr. King: I think your commentary probably reflects the situation pre-moratorium; I do not think it reflects today. We have no intelligence or knowledge whatsoever to suggest there is any foreign overfishing occurring today. The information that we have suggests that there is no overfishing, but the cod stocks continue to decline while the seal stocks continue to increase, if I can put it that simply to you. There is no evidence at all to suggest to us, based on our own science and other observations, that there is any overfishing going on now off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
I will ask Alastair to give you specifics, but I think over the past dozen or so years there has been steady and focused surveillance from DFO off our shores. As a government, we hear all the time from our political opponents in the province — who are critical of us and critical of Department of Fisheries and Oceans — that until the overfishing stops, the stock will never rebound. However, we have no evidence of that, other than the political rhetoric you hear on talk shows and from opponents. There is absolutely not one shred of evidence that we are aware of today that proves there is any overfishing. All of the monitoring and the reports are available to you and your committee from DFO. They do the monitoring around the perimeter of the island and off our shores with their surveillance planes and other mechanisms. They are available. I am not aware that there is any evidence at all where they detected overfishing in the last number of years.
I will ask my deputy to add to that.
Mr. O'Rielly: As the minister indicates, I think the history of this would suggest that there is a huge debate of what happened to the cod stocks. There are three main themes: overfishing, environmental shifts and seals. That has been debated, but I am not aware that there is anything conclusive on any of this. I think that most would agree that all three are probably contributing factors. I do not think it is known to what extent one dominates.
As the minister points out, there is a dramatic reduction in the foreign fishing effort outside 200 miles. It is being closely monitored. It is not perfect, but we take issue with whether or not they are staying within the by-catch limits from time to time. The level of effort is very modest. At any given time there are probably no more than a dozen or maybe 15 or 20 vessels fishing. The level of monitoring is intense, so we are of the view that, yes, there is no intensive overfishing. That is not a causal factor right now.
For the purpose of our debate on seals, the interesting thing to look at is in the gulf where obviously there are no foreign vessels and obviously there is very little fishing effort; yet, there is no recovery of cod stocks, which I think is the essence of the scientific report that DFO scientists produced. It indicates that in the absence of any other causal factor, one has to conclude that it is the consumption of cod by seals that is the causal factor in the failure of the stock to recover. To a large extent our view is that that is what is happening with harp seals as well off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mr. King: If I could, I have one comment. You put a question to us about what the government could do. One of the things that I have been very direct with the federal minister on during any number of occasions is that through any number of decision making processes the government may go through in the coming days, weeks and months, it would be our view, number one, not to reduce the level of monitoring that currently exists because we do believe currently it is working. If you reduce the monitoring of foreign fishing, then you open the door to decimate it.
The second thing that we would urge you to do is maintain investment in science because as we continue to invest in science, we continue to be able to make better decisions about the things we are talking about today. If you reduce the level of the science, then you reduce it down to more political decisions and the spirit of the day versus well-informed, data-driven decision making.
Those are two areas that I would urge you, as I have done with the federal minister, to try and keep some strength in.
Senator MacDonald: Gentlemen, thanks for making the trip over from The Rock. It is great to have you here today.
We could talk forever about what happened to the cod stock. What has happened, has happened, and the question now is how are we going to restore the cod stock, not who is responsible for what happened to it.
I would like to speak about the marketing of seals. I think one area in which we fall down is the marketing of seals. That is why I think it is so great to have the Government of Newfoundland here. They are involved in this more than any other government. When it comes to the marketing of seals, one of the problems is distinguishing between a hunt and a cull. I think people instinctively do not like the idea of a cull for the sake of just removing the animals. We are trying to develop world markets.
What efforts have been made with the industry to develop a domestic market of some sort? Is it easier to convince the world to buy the product when we can convince our own people to buy the product? I am not an expert on what grey seals or harp seals, but pelts and Omega-3 oil are products. I refer to pelts, Omega-3 oils and perhaps fertilizer and pet food. What efforts have been made to at least evaluate the potential of a domestic market for these seals and their by-products.
Mr. King: I want to commend you on that approach and hopefully your colleagues share the approach that we are not focused on why things happened or who is responsible in the past as much as how we are going to fix it for the future.
A considerable debate is coming at us from other political parties in our province and interest groups around wanting to focus their efforts on what happened in the past in an effort to try and lay blame on whether it is a Conservative or a Liberal government from the federal perspective. I do not believe that is a wise use of time nor resources. I think we have to focus on where we are today and how we can improve the situation. That is a comment I really wanted to make, and I hope that is a collective view of the committee. We can spin our wheels for another five years and whether Trudeau or Mulroney or whomever was responsible, but at the end of the day, what do you achieve?
Senator MacDonald: Nothing.
Mr. King: We are no better off.
Given our province's engagement in the fishery, we feel that we would have a lot to lose in sitting idly by. I thank you for that comment, and I am going to ask my deputy to respond to the marketing piece.
Mr. O'Rielly: To be honest, I do not know that a whole lot has been done to look at opportunities to develop domestic markets for seal products. I think the reason is that up until a couple of years ago people were not constrained by markets. There was plenty of opportunity, even in 2011. As recently as December 5, we heard about the Russian ban. There was really no concern about finding markets for products in 2011. This phenomenon has only been with us for the past few months. More can probably be done, but I think it will be a bit of a challenge to develop the Canadian market in some respects.
I have a couple of other points. One is that as pelt products are sold, they become a fairly exclusive product because they are very high quality. However, when you are looking at paying several thousand dollars for garments, that is obviously a limited, finite market.
Finding applications and uses for food products is also somewhat challenging in terms of the numbers and the volumes that we are talking about.
Maybe this is a little in the form of a contextual comment, but I have said to people in the past that if Canadians stop eating fish, we do not care. What I mean is that of course I want Canadians to eat lots of fish, but in terms of markets it does not matter to us because we sell 90 per cent of our seafood worldwide and we can sell lots of it worldwide. However, the volumes we have on the other side are such that if the rest of the world stopped eating fish, we could not sell all the fish we have in Canada. Seals are contextually the same thing.
In terms of other resources and volumes, there are probably opportunities to develop small, domestic niche markets in Canada, but the real opportunity is to move these products into some of the more exclusive and growing markets of the world. Again, Asia looks especially promising to us.
Senator MacDonald: I bring it up because unlike fish there is no political pushback on exporting fish and selling seafood, but there is a substantial pushback in regard to seal products. Has the Government of Newfoundland ever done a serious market study in terms of the viability of the development of the domestic market and what sort of products would be available to the market and would have the potential to be sold?
Mr. O'Rielly: It has not been done because it has not really been necessary up to this point in time. I think the opportunity for us will continue to be global markets. We see the emphasis being on renewing market access and freeing up market access.
We also have to look at the causal factors for the pushback. There seem to be two things. One is that there is a gross misperception that somehow these stocks are not sustainable or maybe cannot withstand the removals, which is patently untrue, of course. There is lots of evidence to support that.
The other issue is the question of killing methods and concerns that people have with respect to doing that. A significant number of groups are opposed to the use of animals at all. Those are the factors at play, and we need to focus more on the cause of the pushback, as you describe it, and deal more effectively with that in terms of communicating the facts and dealing with the realities. We also need to address the people who have concerns about sustainability.
Senator Cochrane: Do Canadians in general support policies regarding the seal hunt?
Mr. King: I think they do. I will ask Alastair, who has been around longer than I have, to give some perspective, but I think they do.
We are facing a tough challenge, as was referenced in the last discussion, with a lot of groups who perhaps are better armed and have deeper pockets in some respects than we do to promote a message. The challenge is that the message on the world stage is not always an accurate message. That is what we are up against.
Do you want to have further commentary?
Mr. O'Rielly: I think that there is, senator. I think there is an issue about whose truth is correct. Plenty of other surveys have shown that Canadians are supportive of the seal harvest. There are others that would show the opposite. The information we see and the communication feedback we get, correspondence and so on, suggests that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of the seal hunt and understand the necessity and the value of having that as a source of income and as the utilization of the resource. I think the answer is yes, but I am acknowledging that there are people who have whole different views.
Senator Cochrane: On everything else as well.
How many harp seals may be taken on a personal basis each year? Is it the same with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, or is there a quota for all of Atlantic Canada?
Mr. O'Rielly: I am not sure that there is any restriction, to be honest. Normally, people will harvest several animals, and I do not think it is a consequential number. Most of the people that harvest seals in Newfoundland and Labrador do so for commercial purposes. The amount that is used personally is relatively modest.
Senator Cochrane: Is it for a short period of time?
Mr. O'Rielly: It is usually harvested when the animals are available and accessible by ice.
Senator Cochrane: Has there been an increase in seal hunters or has there been a decrease?
Mr. O'Rielly: The numbers have fluctuated quite a bit. I think the DFO number in regard to people holding licences is in the neighbourhood of 5,000 or 6,000, but the actual number who participate in the hunt has varied quite a bit.
A few years ago when we had strong markets, we had a tremendous resurgence of activity in the industry. There were probably upwards of a couple of thousand participants, but for a short time. In recent years, as prices have fallen back, understandably as there is with any harvest, there has been reduced participation. However, there has also been reduced participation in the fishing industry as well, primarily those who engage in the commercial harvest. Through a combination of factors there will be some reduction, some of it driven by the market, of course, and some of it driven by reductions in those who participate in the overall commercial harvest of fish.
Senator Cochrane: I am very interested in the commercial venture. We heard recently from a witness from Vancouver about the impact the seals have on a person's health. I was overwhelmed, actually. He was talking about taking seal oil capsules and its benefits in recovering from arthritis, high blood pressure and even Parkinson's disease. I was really impressed with all of that. You take them for a short period of time, and right at the beginning you are going to see the differences. My recommendation would be that perhaps you people could get together with the Department of Health and establish a PR campaign to show the advantages that seal oil capsules could have in relation to various illnesses. I think it would be very important to the health of the people. Get a campaign going.
Here is another suggestion. Let us get a good spokesperson, Gordon Pinsent or somebody like that. Let us get a good spokesperson to get out and promote this product for us. We have to do something in regards to our commercial venture on seal oil because it is so important to the health of Canadians. You and I know that the cost of drugs today for just the three illnesses that I mentioned is enormous. A lot of senior citizens have them, and it is costly, especially for those who do not have the money to buy medication. Sometimes they suffer in pain. Let us do some sort of a commercial venture.
The Chair: Before we close minister, earlier we discussed the fact that the south coast of Newfoundland is now seeing some grey seals. Can you give us some idea of the feedback you have been getting from that area in relation to the sighting of grey seals? I am not sure if they were ever there before.
You may have knowledge of that too, Mr. O'Rielly, but I was just wondering about the feedback you are receiving in the province.
Mr. O'Rielly: On the point you make, historically there was really very little evidence of any grey seal populations on the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. There is widespread anecdotal evidence now of a significant presence. The seals have physically been seen in the waters. There are also indications that they are beginning to establish rookeries along the southwest coast and the southern part of the west coast of the province. Real concerns are being expressed by harvesters in the area about the consequences of that over time.
The other evidence in the conversation with Senator Harb was in relation to the increased presence of parasites in the flesh of the cod in the area, which is also evidence of an increased population of grey seals in the area. It is consistent with what we are saying in that when the population goes up by a factor of more than 10, they are obviously increasing the range in which they are living. Seeking food is the other explanation for what we are seeing there.
The Chair: I think all of our senators are finished now. I would like to end with once again thanking you for taking the time today to travel here to make this presentation. If any other information comes your way that you would like to forward to us, please feel free to do so.
If you have any closing remarks you would like to make, Mr. Minister, before we finish, the floor is yours.
Mr. King: Thank you, Senator Manning.
We do have a little more information that we would like to provide to the committee, and we will forward it to you when we return. I just want to take the opportunity to thank you once again. Our legislature is sitting, as you probably know, but I am excused for the day to come here because this issue is very important to our province. We are very pleased to be here and honoured that all of you took the time to allow us an opportunity to speak today. Thank you so very much for that.
The Chair: Thank you, minister.
(The committee adjourned.)