Sealing their doom: Whale sanctuary may be last safe harbor

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1995:

QUEBEC––The Canadian government got
the word about cod stocks on June 29, and it
wasn’t good. Having allowed northern cod to
be fished to commercial extinction before cut-
ting quotas and cracking down on foreign
dragnetters, Canada may have lost the greater
portion of its Atlantic fishery until at least a
decade into the 21st century, if not forever.
Scrambing to shift the blame, and
hoping to revive the global market for seal
pelts by way of tossing a bone to frustrated
fishers, Canadian fisheries minister Brian
Tobin claimed that evening on the CBC
Prime Time News that, “Whatever the role
seals have played in the collapse of ground-
fish stocks, seals are playing a far more
important and significant role in preventing,
in slowing down, a recovery.”

Newswires around the world duly
noted that, as Reuters put it, “Canadian sci-
entists reported to the advisory Fisheries
Resource Conservation Council that stocks of
northern cod and other groundfish species
showed no signs of recovery or rebuilding
yet, despite three years of fishing bans. The
report noted that the Atlantic seal population
had doubled to 4.8 million since the 1970s,
and suggested that harp and grey seals were
hampering the recovery of the stocks.”
Objected biologist Hal Whitehead
of Dalhousie University via the MARMAM
online forum, “If seals, who eat young cod,
were affecting the populations, then there
should have been changes in the survival

rates of young cod as the seal population grew over the past
15 years or so. But there is no sign of this. The rationale for
increasing the seal hunt is clearly political,” Whitehead
charged. “Fishermen in these parts have a general (but not
universal) dislike of seals, they vote, and their attitudes are
generally reflected by the local and national media. However,
even if seals do affect cod stocks, the stocks are now so low
that to make any substantial change to the impact of seals on
cod, around 70% of the seals would have to be killed.”
Added Stephen Best of the International Wildlife
Coalition, “I can’t find anything in this report or anything in
any reputable, peer-reviewed paper or study anywhere in the
world on any marine mammal fisheries interaction that would
support the minister’s statement.”
The document in question is Report on the Status of
Harp Seals in the Northwest Atlantic, authored by Garry
Stenson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans office in
St. John’s, Newfoundland. Stenson reported that during the
final decade of the offshore seal hunt, 1972-1982, the quota
was set at 175,000 a year, as kills averaged 172,000 a year.
When the offshore hunt was suspended in 1983, due to global
protest, the quota was actually boosted to 186,000/year, but
retrieved kills averaged circa 50,000/year through 1991; rose
to 67,700 in 1992; fell to 26,900 in 1993; and shot up again
to 61,200 in 1994. Last winter the Canadian and several
provincial governments put bounties on seals to increase the
slaughter, but 1995 kill figures have not yet been released.
As mammals often do under intense hunting pres-
sure, Atlantic Canadian harp seals accelerated their reproduc-
tive rate by breeding earlier and more often. “Approximately
90% of the mature females were pregnant in the early 1980s,”
Stenson wrote, “but only 70% were during the early 1990s.
The age at which females become sexually mature has also
changed. In the early 1980s the average age at which they
matured was 4.6 years; in the early 1990s it was 5.3 years.”
Acknowledged Stenson, “The recent reproductive
data provides evidence that the pregnancy rates of seals since
the late 1980s were lower than those used in the previous harp
seal model to estimate the 1990 population. Incorporating
these new reproductive data into the current model has a
major influence on our estimate of 1990 population. The esti-
mate increased (from 3.1 million) to 4.1 million,” within a
claimed confidence interval of 3.6 to 4.3 million.
Stenson did not explain how exactly the discovery
of a pregnancy rate 22% lower than previously projected
could result in a higher estimate of the seal population.

Added to this nonsequiteur, Stenson wrote that, “In recent
years the population has grown at about 1% per year.” In
other words, assuming Stenson’s estimate of 4.1 million seals
in 1990 is accurate despite the likelihood that it isn’t, the
maximum seal population now should be 4.26 million, more
than half a million below the 4.8 million claimed.
Somehow, Stenson asserts, “Total prey consump-
tion by harp seals in the northwest Atlantic has increased from
3.6 million tonnes in 1981 to 6.9 million tonnes in 1994.”
Thus, using Stenson’s own population figures, the seals went
from eating between 2.0 and 2.4 tonnes of fish apiece per year
15 years ago, to eating just 1.4 tonnes apiece now.
Perhaps malnutrition could explain today’s later
maturation and lower rate of pregnancy. But such a severe
drop in food intake should mean that the harp seal population,
far from continuing to grow, should soon crash. However,
the most definitive estimate of harp seal fish consumption to
date, produced by David Lavigne of the University of Guelph
in 1985, figured that if harp seals ate nothing but fish, the
richest food in their diet, they would eat only 0.9 tonnes
apiece per year. This, incidentally, was about 10% of the
estimate of per capita harp seal fish consumption then being
bandied about by the fishing industry and many politicians.
Last year off Newfoundland, according to Stenson,
the seals ate 1.2 million tonnes of Arctic cod and 88,000
tonne of Atlantic cod. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they gob-
bled down 54,000 tonnes of Atlantic cod and 20,000 tonnes of
Arctic cod, though consumption of both cod species com-
bined came to just 16% of their capelin consumption.
Altogether, Atlantic Canadian harp seals are said to have
eaten 1.4 million metric tonnes of cod in 1994.
That’s a number sure to infuriate unemployed
Canadian fisher-folk, who were told earlier this year by Scott
Parsons, assistant deputy minister for science with the
Department of Fisheries, that there were just 400,000 tonnes
of cod left in their waters as of 1990, and that this had
declined to a mere 2,700 tonnes by the end of 1994.
Comparing Parsons’ numbers with Stenson’s, the seals appar-
ently ate 3.5 times as many cod as existed.
Although Parsons’ retroactive estimate of the 1990
cod population may be right, back in 1991, when Canada set
the cod quota at 190,000 tonnes, the official population esti-
mate was 1.1 million tonnes; and when only 153,000 tonnes
of cod were landed, the population estimate was revised
downward to 780,000 tonnes. Based on this figure, which
Parsons retroactively guesses was twice too high, the 1992
cod quota was set at 120,000 tonnes. Thus, if the 1990 cod
population was indeed only 400,000 tonnes, at least two-
thirds of the decline since then was caused not by seals but by
excessive catches allowed by the Canadian government.
Gulf of perception
About a third of the Atlantic Canadian seal popula-
tion is born in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Stenson reported.
For five days, July 5-9, ANIMAL PEOPLE
combed the lower Gulf of St. Lawrence seeking seals and
whales, from St. Simeon to Godbout on the north shore with-
in purported seal summer territory, and from Matane right
around the Gaspe peninsula to Matapedia on the south shore,
before cutting inland to Mt. Joli and driving down the south
shore, in sight of the water almost to Levis. Along the way
we spent 17 hours on the water in two motorized rubber rafts
called Zodiacs; a launch we hired to explore the Saguenay
River fjord; a large whale-watching cruiser; the ferry from
Baie Ste. Catherine to Tadousac, which we took six times;
and the much larger ferry from Godbout to Matane.
Although Canada didn’t admit to the presence of
whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until 1979, perhaps to
avoid pressure to protect them, it hosts more whales of more
species each summer than anywhere but the Arctic, including
the only belugas outside the Arctic circle; sperm whales each
spring in their only venture into coastal waters; blue whales;
fin whales; minkes; and several species of dolphin.
As anticipated, we saw whales and dolphins from
every craft but the Baie Ste. Catherine/Tadousac ferry––both
inside and well beyond the Canadian National Marine
Sanctuary, which extends from St. Simeon to Escoumins and
up the Saguenay as far as belugas go, to the north; the south-
ern boundary is midway in the St. Lawrence. We saw minke
whales lunge-feeding at the confluence of the Saguenay and
the St. Lawrence, breaching like humpbacks–– a behavior
minkes exhibit nowhere else. Off Grand Bergeron, fin
whales twice cruised beneath our Zodiac. A beluga popped
up beside us, almost within reach, while on the Saguenay,
off limits to whale-watching craft, we saw half a dozen or
more belugas form an undulating line across Baie Ste.
Marguerite. Dolphins dotted the waters between Godbout and
Matane so plentifully that regular passengers were blase about
the the sight. On each voyage, we saw more cetaceans than

in all our many previous whale-watches combined.
Harp seals were abundant within the sanctuary.
Elsewhere, we had just one certain sighting of a seal of any
species, and one “maybe.”
“We have seen more harp seals this year than in
previous seasons,” said California marine mammology stu-
dent Christina Tombach, spending her third summer at Ned
Lynas’ Centre ORES d’Etudes Cotiere whale research station
near Grand Bergeron. “We have confirmed sightings of
groups of 30 to 50 individuals. Harbor seal numbers seem
marginally down in the St. Lawrence to date, but this could
just be due to cyclical changes. The weather has been
extremely warm this year, and might affect migrations. But
numbers don’t seem that drastically changed. Grey seals usu-
ally come later in the season, and we are beginning to see
more of them. Your lack of sightings,” she concluded, “is
probably due to timing. The feed density and location varies
with the tides and weather, and the seals follow the feed.”
That might explain why we saw no seals from
Escoumins to Godbout and no seals from Matane to
Matapedia, but it doesn’t explain why there were seals every-
where within the marine sanctuary, yet practically none any-
where else, along nearly 600 miles of coast between the
sanctuary and their other purported locations. Nor does it
explain why there were no seals in the rugged coves of the
beak of the Gaspe, precisely where the Canadian wildlife
officers we asked assured us there would be seals. There
were plentiful fish, all right, who attracted diving birds by
the score, and so many whales we had only to scan the water

to see a spout, but nary a seal along the whole five miles of
some of the most ideal haulout habitat one could imagine.
Truths self-evident
Among the most noted scientists to study the inter-
actions of seals and fish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence without
direct involvement in the controversy is W. Nigel Bonner,
who retired in 1988 after 35 years with the Seals Research
Unit of the British Natural Environment Research Council.
Wrote Bonner in The Natural History of Seals
(1990), “It seems self-evident that if seals eat fish, and there
are a lot of seals, there will be fewer fish. In fact, it is
exceedingly difficult to find convincing examples that fish-
eating marine mammals have affected the abundance of a fish
stock…The seemingly self-evident proposition that more seals
mean fewer fish is not actually soundly based. One should
ask: Fewer than what? In an undisturbed system, seals and
their prey will have evolved together to form a complicated
web of feeding relationships. Seals who feed on fish usually
take a variety, some of which may themselves be fish preda-
tors. If one species becomes scarce, the seals may switch to
another, allowing a recovery of the depleted species. Such
relationships will have been built up over thousands of gener-
ations, and are not easily susceptible to the simple modeling
that is implied by the fisherman’s argument.”
Possibly because of widespread awareness of that
inexactitude, Stenson’s report and two companion reports he
used for background carried the precautionary note that,
“This series…addresses the issues of the day in the time
frames required and the documents it contains are not intend-
ed as definitive statements of the subjects addressed but rather
as progress reports on ongoing investigations.”
Apparently Tobin didn’t read the disclaimer.
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