As the 11th-century abbot Saint Bernard famously observed, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
This is the case with the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The act, introduced by the Nixon administration in 1972, was the United States’ way of addressing growing concerns over human impact on certain marine mammals, such as whales, sea lions and dolphins.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “The MMPA prohibits the ‘take’ of marine mammals — including harassment, hunting, capturing, collecting or killing — in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas. The act also makes it illegal to import marine mammals and marine mammal products into the United States without a permit.”
This sounds all well and good on paper. Most people have no desire to see the demise of the North Atlantic right whale, the Hawaiian monk seal or the Steller sea lion. Canada, however, has suffered under these regulations as the biggest trading partner of the U.S.
As just about any fish harvester can tell you, the abundant seal population in Canada is a big problem. The Northwest Atlantic alone has nearly 12 million grey, hooded, bearded, harp, harbour and ring seals. Each seal eats between 1.5 to 6.4 kilograms of fish per day, totalling in the range of 14 million metric tonnes of fish per year.
To put this in perspective, sea fisheries, Canada-wide, brought in a grand total of 718,078 metric tonnes of groundfish, pelagics and shellfish in 2021 — roughly five per cent of the annual seal consumption in Atlantic Canada alone.
To put it simply, Canada has a lot of seals. And those seals fish every day with no quotas or trip limits or overhead costs to run a multi-million-dollar fishery. Many in the seafood industry are distraught over the damage that the voracious seal appetite is doing to fish stocks in the waters they fish. The solution, to many, is straightforward. Eat more seal meat, wear more seal fur and find other uses for seal products to encourage a sustainable seal hunt to bring the population in check.
This is where Prince Edward Island-based Bait Masters comes in.
This medium-sized company based out of Nine Mile Creek is the world’s largest producer of alternative bait. Their co-founder, Mark Prevost, is a fisherman himself. He came up with an idea to further utilize seals by using the leftover by-product from seal meat to create lobster and crab bait.
Numerous tests were done to assure the quality of this bait. First, it underwent rigorous risk assessments to ascertain whether seal-based bait would transfer illnesses and parasites to lobsters, crabs and the humans eating them. The risk of such transfers was deemed “very low” by the assessment.
On top of this, seal meat makes for a highly effective bait, according to Prevost.
“There’s a good market — I didn’t even know this when I first got into it — for seal meat for human consumption around the world,” said Prevost. “I wanted to use the by-product. Whatever they weren’t using, because it just goes to waste. It goes to landfills. And it’s still really good meat — it’s really lean, oily… It crosses a lot of t’s for bait for lobster and crab.”
With all their data in hand and a solid sales pitch, Prevost brought his seal bait proposal to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The answer they got was a resounding no. The reason? Due to the MMPA, any lobster, crab or other sea creature baited with seal meat could potentially be in violation of the act, which could halt the trade of seafood to the United States.
“The Marine Mammal Protection Act from 1972 is, for the most part, bulletproof,” said Prevost. “If it’s going to impact fishermen’s livelihood… The Americans won’t buy our lobsters if we use seal for bait, so I don’t want to be a part of that.”
Prevost walked away from his innovative idea disheartened. Not just with respect to his business, but for the fishery as a whole. The Bait Masters founder noted that were projects like his allowed to go ahead, and the seal population was better utilized, it would go a long way towards helping with stock management. He noted that utilizing just 0.01 per cent of the grey seal population — or about 4,000 seals — in bait production would reduce the need for herring and mackerel in the bait market by 694,000 pounds.
The Canadian fishery now stands between a rock and a hard place. Our options, barring any solutions from the government such as bartering exceptions from the MMPA, are to jeopardize our long-standing seafood trade with the United States or sit and watch as seal populations continue to grow and plunder the bountiful fishery that sustains so many in Atlantic Canada.