10/23/2012 09:00 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Senate Expected To Deal With Grey Seal Cull

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2005 file photo, a female grey seal moves over thin ice near the shore in Canso, Nova Scotia. A report released Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011, 70,000 grey seals should be killed over a one or two-year period to test the hypothesis that the animals are preventing recovery of groundfish stocks in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Andrew Vaughan)

UPDATE: The Senate committee has recommended a seal cull, CBC reports. The cull will affect 70,000 in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Senate's fisheries committee is expected today to endorse a cull of grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, although a prominent biologist questions the move.

Senators have been studying a plan that would see 140,000 grey seals in southern Gulf of St. Lawrence killed. The herd has about 350,000 animals.

The Senate's standing committee on fisheries and oceans began hearings last year to respond to a Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat call for an experimental — and unprecedented — cull of grey seals.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans blames the animals for preventing cod stocks from recovering in the Gulf.

But Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says that view oversimplifies the problem, and that a cull of grey seals could not be expected to save cod.

"It does not then follow that if you reduce the number of grey seals that you will automatically have a positive impact on cod recovery," said Hutchings, who appeared before the Senate fisheries committee.

"It's not a two-species ecosystem. It's a multi-species ecosystem."

EU ban impacts seal market

Hutchings said the available science does not support a cull.

"One cannot credibly predict from a science perspective whether a cull of grey seals would have a positive impact on cod or negative impact on cod...or no impact whatsoever," he said.

Grey seals represent only a small percentage of the annual seal hunt in Eastern Canada, with harp seals by far dominating the traditional market.

However, that market has collapsed in recent years, in the wake of a European Union ban against Canadian seal products.

Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, said trying to turn a grey seal cull into a commercial venture could be a hard sell.

"The price would have to go up, because it would have to be worthwhile for sealers to go and harvest these animals in order to make it worthwhile for them to do so," he said.

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