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November 11, 2011

HSI Canada Condemns Fisheries Minister for Reckless Promotion of Massive Grey Seal Cull

Humane Society International/Canada

  • A massive cull of grey seals off Canada's east coast is reckless. HSI

MONTREAL — Humane Society International/Canada condemned Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield for his baseless and uninformed promotion of a massive cull of grey seals off Canada’s east coast.

“Minister Ashfield is proposing we play Russian roulette with the ecosystem of the northwest Atlantic,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada. “The report he cites to justify a cull of grey seals clearly states that such a move could easily wipe out the remaining cod stocks. Grey seals consume many predators of cod, and not surprisingly, cod stocks are recovering in the area with the highest number of grey seals. A grey seal cull will serve nothing more than the ambitions of political opportunists playing to certain sectors of the fishing industry.”

In 2009, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, under intense pressure from sectors of the Canadian fishing industry,[1] commissioned a feasibility study regarding a massive cull of grey seals on Sable Island.[2] In 2010, DFO held a workshop in which selected participants (including many DFO staff people) evaluated the negative impacts of grey seals on cod stocks[3] (they specifically did not consider positive impacts). In 2011, the resulting report was released by DFO. This report, while used by some politicians to support the idea of a grey seal cull, acknowledges serious gaps in knowledge about grey seal diets, observes that adult cod mortality is the same in areas with far fewer grey seals as it is in areas with high grey seal concentrations, and notes that a cull of grey seals could, in fact, hasten the decline of fish populations and lead to “unforeseen, unpredictable and unintended consequences for the ecosystem.”[4]

Grey seals congregate primarily on Sable Island, which is located in the same region in which Ken Frank, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, concluded in 2011 that cod stocks are recovering. His report found that decreases in populations of fish stocks such as capelin and herring—which both compete with cod for food and prey on the eggs of cod—is the reason for the recovery.[5] Notably, both capelin and herring are among the species consumed by grey seals.[6]


  • By 1949, grey seals were considered extirpated off Canada’s east coast because of overhunting.[7] The grey seal population has been in a slow recovery in recent decades, but still numbers only in the few hundreds of thousands.[8]
  • Decades of overfishing and mismanagement by the Canadian government led to the collapse of northern cod off Canada’s east coast. In 1992, a moratorium on cod fishing was declared.[9] Government and fishing industry representatives attempted to blame seals, rather than overfishing, for the collapse.
  • In the late 1990s, Canadian government scientists complained of political suppression of scientific evidence when their reports showed that overfishing – rather than seals – caused the collapse of cod stocks. Today, the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that human overfishing caused the cod collapse.[10]
  • Despite the moratorium, a number of fishing zones remain open to commercial cod fishing[11] and in 2011 Atlantic cod contributed over $5.7 million to the value of Newfoundland’s fishery.[12] The fishing industry on Canada’s east coast, while openly continuing destructive fishing practices, has transparently attempted to scapegoat seals for dwindling fish stocks. But while there is clear evidence that over-fishing and destructive fishing techniques continue to negatively impact fish stocks,[13] the myth that culling seals will benefit fish stocks is not supported by any credible scientific evidence.
  • According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website, “Seals eat cod, but seals also eat other fish that prey on cod. There are several factors contributing to the lack of recovery of Atlantic cod stocks such as fishing effort, the poor physical condition of the fish, poor growth, unfavourable ocean conditions and low stock productivity at current levels. It is widely accepted in the scientific community that there are many uncertainties in the estimates of the amount of fish consumed by seals. Seals and cod exist in a complex ecosystem, which mitigates against easy analysis or simple solutions to problems such as the lack of recovery of cod stocks.”[14]


 [1] The Canadian Press. 2008. Ottawa considering request to increase seal quota (July 31) http://www.thewesternstar.com/Natural-resources/2008-07-31/article-1479576/Ottawa-considering-request-to-increase-seal-quota/1

 [2] The Coast. 2010. How to kill 220,000 seals on Sable Island: the DFO plan. (May 27) http://www.thecoast.ca/RealityBites/archives/2010/05/26/how-to-kill-220000-seals-on-sable-island-the-dfo-plan

 [3] Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2010. Terms of Reference. Zonal Advisory Process on the Impacts of Grey Seals on Fish Populations in Eastern Canada. http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/csas-sccs/schedule-horraire/2010/10/10_04-08-eng.htm

 [4] Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2011. Impacts of grey seals on fish populations in Eastern Canada. Pages 41-42, 46-47. http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/CSAS/Csas/publications/sar-as/2010/2010_071_e.pdf 

 [5] Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 2011. East Coast Cod Found to Be Recovering. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2011/07/27/science-cod-ecosystem-reverse-recover.html See also, Frank KT, Petrie B, Fisher JAD, Leggett WC. 2011. Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem. Nature doi:10.1038/nature10285)

 [6] Bowen, W. D., and Harrison, G. D. 1994. Offshore diet of grey seals near Sable Island, Canada. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 112: 1e11. http://www.int-res.com/articles/meps/112/m112p001.pdf

 [7] Lavigne, D., and K. Kovacs. 1988. Harps and hoods: Ice-breeding seals of the Northwest Atlantic. Waterloo, Canada: University of Waterloo Press.

 [8] Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2008. Science Advisory Report 2007/056. Stock assessment of Northwest Atlantic grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/csas-sccs/publications/sar-as/2007/2007_056-eng.htm 

 [9] Woodard, C. 2001. A run on the banks. The Environmental Magazine. March/April: 65.

 [10] Hutchings, J.A., C. Walters, and R.L. Haedrich. 1997. Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control? Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 53: 1198--1210. http://www.mun.ca/biology/bgsa/papers/Hutchings_et_al._1997.pdf

 [11] Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2011. Species Quota Report. Newfoundland and Labrador Region. http://www.nfl.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/publications/reports_rapports/Cod_Morue_2011_eng.htm

 [12] Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2011. Landings and Landed Value by Species. Newfoundland and Labrador Region. http://www.nfl.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/publications/reports_rapports/Land_Inshore_Debarquer_cotiere_2011_eng.htm

 [13] Hilborn R, Litzinger E (2009) Causes of decline and potential for recovery of Atlantic cod populations. Open Fish Sci J 2:32–38. http://www.benthamscience.com/open/tofishsj/articles/V002/32TOFISHSJ.pdf 

 [14] Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2004. Facts about seals 2004-2005. http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/seal-phoque/reports-rapports/facts-faits/facts-faits2004-eng.htm


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Humane Society International/Canada is a leading force for animal protection, representing tens of thousands of members and constituents across the country. HSI Canada has active programs in companion animals, wildlife and habitat protection, marine mammal preservation and farm animal welfare. HSI Canada is proud to be a part of Humane Society International, one of the largest animal protection organizations in the world, with more than 11 million members and constituents globally. On the Web at hsicanada.ca.

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