Photos courtesy of Canadian Seal Products

Seals in Atlantic Canada eat a lot of fish every day and there is a great deal of them, coming in at nearly 12 million animals.

Their voracious appetite, according to experts, is damaging both the commercial fishery and fish stocks.

Bob Hardy has spent a good portion of his life dealing with seals in one way or another. Growing up in Battle Harbour, Labrador, Hardy spent some time taking part in the inshore cod and salmon fisheries. After graduating from university, he spent nine years as a researcher before entering the seafood industry wherein he developed the first seal oil capsule that was commercially available in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 2007, he founded Hardy Fish Co., a fisheries consultancy company, where he took part in projects that researched seal oil, meat and by-product utilization. He has also spent time as a member of the Atlantic Seal Science Task Team.

Hardy has since drafted a document entitled, Seals Eat Fish, highlighting the impact the large seal population has on fish stocks and the fishery itself.

“Norway has done a considerable amount on harp seals, in particular, and their conclusions are very different than most from Canada,” said Hardy. “They’ve had a collapse in most species on a couple of occasions over there — one in the late 80s and one in the mid-90s. Their scientists call it a seal invasion. They plotted out all the information on a chart and you had two valleys in the information where all stocks were depleted. Luckily for them, the seals moved away. They moved further north. They did not return.”

In talking to the Norwegian scientists who noticed these stock collapses coinciding with approximately two million seals, they spelled out to Hardy the predicament they believe Canada to be in.

“I said, ‘So if you had 10 million seals and they were in your waters for 30 years and they were resident — you could see them from the shoreline and they were onshore, and they never left — what type of effect would it have on a fishery?’ And he answered to me, ‘I think you have a very big problem.’”

In Hardy’s opinion, the size of this problem can’t be overstated.

Photos courtesy of Canadian Seal Products

Canada’s population of harbour, grey, bearded, hooded, ring and harp seals eat between 1.5 to 6.4 kilograms of mixed fish per day, according to estimates by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The grand total estimated by Hardy, when accounting for Canada’s nearly 12 million seal population, is 13,887,974 metric tonnes of fish eaten per year. Dollars-wise, that racks up to around a $26,901,002,270 loss to harvesters and $53,802,004,540 to processors.

“One thing that I say and it sort of sums it up, is that seals fish every day. Regardless of quotas, regardless of the weather, they have to eat, and they eat every day,” said Hardy. “Whereas the commercial fishery has restrictions in place and quotas, and they don’t fish in the winter — seals continue to have an impact on the fishery for the entire year.”

Doug Chiasson, Executive Director of the Fur Institute of Canada (FIC) and a member of the Canadian Seal Products organization, said that the seal population is the largest it’s ever been since the advent of the modern commercial fishery, which he said has far-reaching implications for the Atlantic Canadian fishery and fish stocks.

“The clearest indication we have is that there’s a number of species — I think it’s at five now — of formerly commercially fished species at risk where they list seal predation as the major impediment to stock rebuilding,” said Chiasson. These five species include American plaice, white hake, Southern Gulf cod, yellowtail flounder and winter skate, which are all located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

DFO has previously noted that seals are a generalist species that eat whatever is available to them. When they’ve eaten a certain species to the point where it’s become scarce, seals will move on to whatever else is available to them.

“In the Gulf, we are seeing concrete impacts and easily measurable impacts from grey seal predation,” said Chiasson. “So, we can apply a certain degree of common sense to this and say if grey seals are affecting formerly commercial groundfish species in the Gulf, then it would stand to reason that seals elsewhere, particularly in the northwest Atlantic, are having an impact on fish populations.”

Photos courtesy of Canadian Seal Products

Chiasson also noted that the commercial fishery in eastern Canada, which employs nearly 40,000 individuals in harvesting alone, doesn’t hold a candle to the vast seal populace in the region.

“The amount of fish eaten in a year by our various seal herds are approximately 53 times the combined catch of the Canadian commercial fleet in eastern Canada,” said Chiasson. “It’s not an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue anymore for folks. Certainly, fish harvesters have been noticing the impact. But, more and more, it’s becoming clear to the average person who’s driving across the bridge at the mouth of the Margaree or driving to go fish salmon on the Humber that seals are having an impact.”

According to Hardy, part of the blame for the issues seals have caused rests with government regulations. He said that current regulations cater too much to anti-sealing organizations, while harvesters and those attached to the industry suffer, while other countries such as Norway and Iceland permit a more robust seal hunt.

He claims that as the seal population in the 1990s increased to an unsustainable number, many previously healthy stocks, such as cod and salmon, diminished.

“I think our government has been all too eager to agree and really not put up a legitimate, fact-based fight to try to assist an industry which has struggled for so many years,” said Hardy. “I mean, to have a (cod) moratorium for 31 years — We don’t have a commercial fishery right now, we have a stewardship, science-based fishery… All of our fisheries, it all happened leading up to 1992. And what was going on at that time? The seal population was getting up to seven million plus animals at the same time. As the seal population went up, our cod fishery went down, and all of our stock went down and they have not recovered.”

Hardy said that a start to solving the issue presented by this gigantic population is fully utilizing the take that DFO has allowed for seals.

“If we were able to take the allowable quota, which is 450,000 harps, I believe. If we can take that number, that in itself would be a significant reduction in what’s being consumed,” said Hardy. “And once you get to that level, which is a lot of work, then you could potentially ask for an increase in that quota. It is the only species with a quota that five per cent or seven per cent is being taken annually.”

In order to harvest more seals, however, there needs to be a use and demand for seal products.

Chiasson said that without establishing a market for seals, the solution will not fix itself.

“The best way to encourage increased removal of seals is by establishing a healthy and vibrant market for seal products and make it so that it’s worth the time, talent and treasure to go out and kill seals and have folks want to become sealers because there’s good money in it. There has been in the past and it’s not that it’s a hypothetical,” said Chiasson.

Part of Chiasson’s solution mirrors Hardy’s, in that both the federal and provincial governments need to take deliberate steps to promote the seal harvest by broadening market reach both in existing and new markets as well as supporting product development.

The second piece of Chiasson’s solution involves exposing the public at large, including those not from coastal communities, to seal products.

“Every single person who buys a seal product becomes an evangelist for seal products,” said Chiasson. “Whatever we can do to help people get past the anti-sealing group that’s been pumped into our heads for 50 years now — once they experience the product, they want it and they want more of it and they want to tell all of their friends about it.”

In the age of online shopping, Chiasson said he and his colleagues have more opportunity than ever to expand the seal product market to people in areas separated from the seal population.

“One of the questions we’re trying to solve through the Canadian Seal Products marketing program is to put this product out there in a way that’s easily accessible online, and at the same time providing those pieces of information — those quick tidbits and facts, like the 53 times the commercial fleet number — for folks that do choose to buy seal products.”

Given that seal products span a wide range of items, from meat to clothing, to supplements like omega-3 seal oil pills, Chiasson believes that there’s something for everyone in the seal market.

“If we can put these products in front of people and have them experience them… We have the omega-3 oil product and the folks that I’ve talked to have said that once they started taking seal oil pills every morning, that knee that they hurt in high school doesn’t bother them as much anymore or that stiff shoulder that they used to have if there was a cold front coming in isn’t actually that stiff anymore,” said Chiasson.

“All of these testimonials, as they filter out through the public, will help us create a broader potential customer base.”