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Hal Whitehead

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The Proposed Seal Cull is Unscientific and Just Plain Wrong

Posted: 10/25/2012 8:14 am

I have read the Senate report The Sustainable Management of Grey Seal Populations: A path toward the recovery of cod and other groundfish stocks. The senators show a deficit of logical thinking. Perhaps most fundamentally, the cull they are supporting is not an "experiment" in any scientific sense of the term, and will tell us virtually nothing about the workings of the ecosystem.

I am a scientist who has studied marine mammals off eastern Canada for the past 35 years. The concept of a seal cull to improve Maritime groundfish stocks is not scientifically defensible. It is simply not known whether seals have a positive or negative effect on groundfish populations. A large cull of grey seals in the Maritimes will not help our understanding.

The world´s largest population of grey seals breeds on Sable Island on the eastern Scotian Shelf. Current surveys show that while seal populations on Sable Island are still increasing somewhat, so also now are the groundfish populations. These trends may or may not be related but clearly there is no case whatsoever for a seal cull on Sable Island. All diet studies to date have concluded that cod comprise a very minor component of grey seal diets on the Scotian Shelf.

In the southern Gulf of St Lawrence, groundfish stocks are in worse shape and have declined while seal populations have increased. This does not mean that seals caused the groundfish decline. There are many other species in this ecosystem that consume cod (the greatest of which are cod themselves and other fish), and many other factors affecting ecosystem changes.

For instance, there is a substantial biomass of small fish-eating whales and dolphins in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence, and cod-eating sperm whales in the Cabot Strait. Should they be culled too for this experiment? Actually, "experiment" is the wrong word, because there is no replication and no control. If the seals were removed and the groundfish increased, or the groundfish decreased, it would tell us nothing much at all about the relationship between the species. What is the "scientific plan" to determine what the cause and effects would be?

Grey seals were part of the ecosystem in these waters before humans set eyes on them, and coexisted with very large groundfish populations until mechanized fisheries appeared, so, in effect the "experiment" has already been done, and the conclusion is: groundfish and seals can coexist in large numbers, when not over-exploited by fisheries.

We have a woeful history of manipulating ecosystems. There is sometimes a case for trying to remove non-native species with large impacts, but these attempts often backfire. Removing native species is scientifically indefensible, and, from my perspective, morally wrong.

WARNING: GRAPHIC


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    The following slideshow contains potentially graphic images.

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Seal hunters use a hakapik, a club used for killing seals, to kill a seal near their boat in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence March 31, 2008 near Charlottetown, Canada. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Seal hunters skin harp seals on an ice floe March 30, 2001 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    The bodies of harp seals, roughly twenty days old, lie on an ice floe March 27, 2001 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    The carcass of a harp seal, roughly twenty days old, lies on an ice floe March 30, 2001 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    The carcass of a harp seal, roughly twenty days old, lies on an ice floe March 30, 2001 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    The carcass of a harp seal, roughly twenty days old, lies on an ice floe March 30, 2001 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Seal hunters carry dead seals in their boat in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence March 31, 2008 near Charlottetown, Canada. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    A policeman tries to remove female animal-rights activist Ashley Fruno (R), covered with a body-painting to look like the Canadian flag, during her one-woman anti-sealing protest by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) outside the Canadian embassy in Tokyo on March 24, 2010. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Animal rights activists, Sir Paul McCartney(R) and then-wife Heather Mills McCartney get up close to a seal pup during a venture onto the ice floes of the Gulf of St-Lawrence before the start of the 2006 seal hunting season in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. (DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Members of the organization for the defense of animals AnimalNaturalis protest naked and painted as bloody seals to protest the seal hunt in Canada on March 15, 2010. (Getty)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Members of the organization for the defense of animals AnimalNaturalis protest naked and painted as bloody seals to protest against the seal hunt in Canada on March 15, 2010. (Getty)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Inuit hunter Pitseolak Alainga (L) explains how the Inuit traditionally hunt seal to Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty outside the Nunavut Legislature in Iqaluit, Canada, February 6, 2010. (GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    An animal-rights activist holds a baseball bat as he stands next to a person wearing a seal costume during a protest against the killing of seals in Canada on March 29, 2010 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    An animal-rights activist wears a mask depicting the face of a seal during a protest against the killing of seals in Canada on March 29, 2010 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    People protest in front of the Canadian Consulates, on March 25, 2009 in Nice, south eastern France, to protest against the seal hunt in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada. (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    Having recently returned from a trip out to the ice floes to collect seal heart valves for scientific research, local butcher and seal hunter, Rejean Vigneau (R) and AN employee (L) prepare seal meat in his meat shop on March 25, 2008 in the Magdalen Islands of Quebec, Canada. (DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Canadian Seal Hunt

    The Grim Reaper clubs a mock seal to death during a protest by the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animlas) in Hong Kong, 21 April 2006. (MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images)


 
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