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Fishermen say seal populations in the North Atlantic ocean are out of control and threatening already depleted cod and capelin stocks, but scientists say those worries are unfounded and the focus on seals thwarts attention from a greater threat – ecosystem changes due to climate change

Skipper Dwight Russell says there’s “no shortage of seals” in the North Atlantic Ocean, where he and his crew fish off the coast of Labrador. Interviewed in mid-July from his boat, the Miss Mackenzie, he said he and his crew had been surrounded by a herd of harp seals a few days back – an experience he says has become increasingly common.

The sight of all those seals bobbing in the water makes him worry about his fishing prospects – like many fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador, Skipper Russell believes an “out-of-control” harp seal population has depleted commercial fishing species, leaving little chance of recovery. At the summer shrimp fishery about 80 nautical miles off the eastern tip of Labrador, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) officials have reported shrimp stock in the “critical zone” for the fifth consecutive year.

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DFO estimates the Northwest Atlantic harp seal population at 7.6 million – the highest on record (based on 2017 data), at more than triple the population of 50 years ago and still steadily increasing.

But Mr. Russell’s concerns are at odds with DFO science, which says the harp seal population is not a major factor in declining fish stocks. Instead, DFO officials offer a different explanation, one that’s harder for local fishermen to accept: that climate change is at the root of the problem. DFO officials held a technical briefing at the end of June to address what they described as misinformation about the impacts of seals on fish such as Atlantic cod and capelin in Newfoundland and Labrador waters. During the one-hour briefing, geared toward media, the officials presented the North Atlantic seal as less of a scoundrel and more of a scapegoat.

A female harp seal looks out near the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Que.Ingo Arndt/The Globe and Mail

“People want to understand what is generating the changes in the [fish stock] abundances and why they cannot fish more,” says Dr. Mariano Koen-Alonso, one of the DFO research scientists who presented the June briefing. Certainly, he said, seals provide a convenient explanation for fishing troubles. But if you look more closely at the situation, it “becomes much more complex.”

According to DFO scientists, warmer ocean temperatures and earlier sea-ice melting are among the most worrisome ecosystem changes in the North Atlantic, and that warming trend means poor returns for a variety of fisheries, from capelin to cod to shrimp. As a result, the department is working to shift its “single-species management” model – from fishing and annual catch limits (the primary management tool of fisheries managers considering any fish species in isolation) to “ecosystem-based management,” which takes into account broader variables, such as interactions with other species, the effects of environmental changes, and/or pollution and other stressors on habitat and water quality.

DFO documentation shows that the department recognized the need to move in this direction in 1998. Twenty years later, in 2019, DFO formally struck a national working group on an ecosystem approach to fisheries management. But so far, their progress remains stalled.

It’s one thing to collect ecological, oceanographic and climate data – an area in which DFO has shown great progress, says Dr. Pierre Pepin, the research scientist who chairs the working group – but it’s quite another to apply that data to fisheries decisions. It’s not yet routine practice to use climate variables in fisheries decisions, says Pepin, because scientists don’t yet know precisely how climate change affects marine species. As a result, even the working group’s best efforts will see DFO continuing to carry out single-species fisheries management, says Pepin. It’s a frustrating situation made even more frustrating by the continued negative attention paid to seals, says Dr. Koen-Alonso, who specializes in ecosystem-based management.

A group of harp seals in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.Jan Vermeer/The Globe and Mail

“This is in many ways acting as a distraction from what should be the main conversation, which is how these ecosystems are going to play out as climate conditions change,” says Koen-Alonso of the ongoing preoccupation with seals. “If we want to really rebuild [fish] stocks, we need to understand those things first and use that to guide our management, and not necessarily use our time addressing questions that we know are not going to lead us to a useful, effective answer.”

When it comes to ecosystem changes, warming waters are the key environmental factor DFO cites as affecting Atlantic cod and capelin – both species are critically depleted, compared to historical levels of abundance. While seals are an important predator, they are not an overwhelming one, says Dr. Garry Stenson, a DFO research scientist specializing in marine mammals.

“It would have been simple to answer a question without invoking anything about the environment, but you need to look at the environmental changes that are occurring in order to understand what’s happening to those fish stocks. That’s what’s driving things, not necessarily predation,” says Stenson, who also delivered the June briefing.

It’s not that fishermen need convincing about climate change. Mr. Russell says he’s concerned about weakening sea ice and changing ocean temperature too, particularly what he calls “a warming trend” in the North Atlantic ocean. “The climate is warming up,” he says. “The world’s warming up and the Arctic and Subarctic are warming up at a higher pace than other areas. And I think that’s pretty well reflected [in] what people around Labrador and the coast of Labrador and the fishery see too – it’s quite a warming trend for this year in particular. You just notice certain things, like the lack of icebergs.”

More than 100 years of climate data shows the North Atlantic is unquestionably trending warm, especially if you look at bottom temperature (temperature collected at the bottom of the ocean in spring and fall) and sea ice condition trends. The Newfoundland and Labrador Climate Index, which DFO made publicly available in May for the first time, describes the environmental conditions on the NL shelf (the continental shelf extending from Labrador to the east coast of Newfoundland, including the Grand Banks) and in the Northwest Atlantic as a whole. The data shows prevalent sea ice degradation since the early 1990s. The annual number of icebergs is also dramatically increasing – from an annual average of 495 over the last 121 years, to an annual average of 771 over the last thirty years. Meanwhile, the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, also cued attention to ocean warming and sea ice degradation trends, projected to continue in the Arctic region.

A grey seal near Bonaventure Island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

NICK HAWKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Harbour seals rest on rocks during low tide around Hardwood Island, Nova Scotia. The islands support a healthy population of both harbour and grey seals.

NICK HAWKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Single-species fisheries management (the model under which DFO operates now) is considered the lowest level of ecosystem based management. That’s followed by an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (where DFO, guided by the national working group, is heading), which is still a single-fish stock approach but begins to consider the role of climate and habitat. Getting to the highest level requires an entirely new constellation of players around the decision-making table because it goes beyond a fisheries management plan to a regional ocean plan that considers everything from climate to human activity like energy, oil and gas development, aquaculture, marine traffic and more, says Pepin.

But Stenson says it’s easy to point the finger at seals for depleted fish stocks, given their abundance. In the case of capelin, DFO sciences shows predation is a concern in the state of the stocks, but they say seals, which share their time between North Atlantic and Arctic waters, consume only one-third of the food eaten by predatory fish, like cod; and ecological change outranks predation as a factor inhibiting capelin recovery.

The June technical briefing (a meeting Stenson says was two years in the making) did not cover seal impacts on shellfish such as shrimp, but in spring, DFO reported that shrimp abundance is similarly affected by warmer water, predation and prey availability. But “the precise relationships [between these factors] are unclear,” cites the assessment briefing materials.

In the case of cod, science also backs other factors – such as lack of capelin prey and decades of overfishing – as hampering recovery efforts. When it comes to the warming trend, scientists actually linked a warmer ocean to encouraging Northern cod (a population of the Atlantic cod species) recovery back in 2015. More recent stock assessments have shown Northern cod recovery remains stalled – and that has led many to once again point their finger at seals. But if that’s the case, how did Northern cod show signs of a comeback when the seal population was also steadily increasing? That’s one of the primary reasons science rejects the theory that seals are a major factor in the decline of fish like Atlantic cod, says Garry Stenson. Another instance dates back to the 1992 cod moratorium, when the federal government banned the East Coast cod fishery in an attempt to allow the cod stocks a chance to recover. If seals did contribute (along with overfishing – well understood as the primary factor leading to the cod collapse) to the decreased cod stocks at that time, then why didn’t the seal population suffer when cod was at its lowest levels?

Atlantic cod in Newfoundland.Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

Keith Watts, the general manager of the Inuit-owned Torngat Fisheries Co-op, which operates in central Labrador from Goose Bay as far as northern Labrador in Nain and represents more than 500 fishers and plant workers in Nunatsiavut, says he’s not convinced by that rationale.

“Seals are larger mammals and top of the food chain in the ocean environment and we’re seeing declines in the very lucrative fisheries like northern shrimp and snow crab in our area,” says Watts. “I’m a bit skeptical because they tend to say that finfish eat more capelin than seals. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around, especially when they haven’t been doing science on seals continuously. And there’s still a lot of skepticism throughout Newfoundland and Labrador because we’re not harvesting 400,000 [seals] a year anymore.”

While DFO has historically set the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), which is the amount of quota commercial fishermen may harvest in a season, at 400,000 harp seals annually, less than 10 per cent of that catch is harvested each year – and that percentage appears to be shrinking. The Seafood Industry Year in Review for 2019, published annually by the NL Department of Fisheries and Land Resources noted: “Market access issues resulted in just 32,000 seals harvested in 2019, a decrease of 46 per cent compared to 2018.”

A fishing boat at Little River Cove, Digby Neck, Nova Scotia, in 2017Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

“The markets are gone. Nobody, politically, wants to address or try and fix the collapse of the commercial seal fishery,” says Dion Dakins, the CEO of Carino Processing Ltd., which processes seals for meat, oil and hides, and is one of the only seal processors remaining in the province. As of July, the company had processed 25,000 harp seals this year and Dakins was not optimistic about finishing the season strong.

For its part, in 2017, the federal government launched the National Seal Products Day Act. As the act states: “the importance of the seal hunt for Canada’s Indigenous people, coastal communities and entire population should be recognized by designating May 20 as National Seal Products Day.” A year later, in 2018, documents tabled in the House of Commons showed more correspondence had been sent to the Prime Minister’s Office since Justin Trudeau took office in fall of 2015 on seal hunting than any other topic. The more than two million messages (which accounted for 60 per cent of all correspondence received) outranked correspondence on climate change (ranking second with 240,376 pieces of correspondence) and pipelines (receiving 140,859 pieces of correspondence).

Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union, which represents inshore fishermen in NL, sees the need for more science. “Changes in the ecosystem are having significant impacts. It’s incredibly difficult to measure that and we should do the best we can to try to keep up with those changes. But with that being said, it’s not a reason not to put the work in on what we know is the dominant predator in the environment. The warning signs are there that we should be paying more attention to what’s happening overall in the environment, but particularly with seals,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan says one of those warning signs was a 2006 modelling paper that drew on 30 years of data, showing that the growth of the grey seal population significantly contributed to stalling the recovery of the Gulf of St. Lawrence Atlantic cod stock. The study, carried out by ecologists at the University of British Columbia and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, was funded by DFO. Another research paper, released this summer (and also funded, in part, by DFO with review by Garry Stenson), now identifies harvest strategies to reduce the grey seal population, noting the Gulf of St. Lawrence Atlantic cod is “likely to be extirpated unless grey seal presence in that ecosystem is strongly reduced.”

Fishermen aware of the grey seal issue cite it when voicing concerns about the harp seals. However, DFO says that the harp seals are not having the same impact on cod stocks as the grey seals, which is a phenomenon they say is limited to the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Fisherman with Atlantic cod in Newfoundland, October 2017.

NICK HAWKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Spawned out capelin on a beach on the Gaspé Peninsula, Que.

NICK HAWKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

What’s difficult to counter are fishermen’s photos – often taken on the ice and shared on social media – showing massive seal herds or the stomach contents of seals filled with capelin, cod, shrimp or crab.

“A fisherman cutting open the belly of a seal and finding it filled with fish is disregarded by DFO as anecdotal, but the fisherman’s experience on the ice and seeing that first-hand is incommensurable with DFO’s findings – mostly statistical mathematical abstractions – showing seals are not a major threat to fish like cod and capelin,” says Dean Bavington, a Memorial University of Newfoundland geographer who studies fisheries management policies. If DFO wants to engage fishermen in a meaningful way, they must meet fishermen where they are, says Bavington, on the ice.

Dakins says during his time on the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee, which was formed by DFO as the consultative body between the department and sealing stakeholders, the committee’s advice to scientists was to stop counting seals and focus on predator-prey interactions. In advance of next year’s commercial cod fishery quota decisions, Garry Stenson says DFO is, in fact, re-evaluating harp seal impacts on Northern cod through modelling efforts.

A Hooded seal pup takes a break among the fishing vessels on the dry dock at the South Side Harbour of St. John's Newfoundland after climbing out of the freezing cold waters of the Atantic Ocean.Russell Lynch/The Globe and Mail

Perhaps the greatest lesson on seals – whether you see them as a scapegoat or scoundrel – is how far removed the current discussion is from what’s required to achieve ecosystem based management.

“For years, fishermen have been told it’s fishing that drives populations,” says Garry Stenson. He says DFO manages fishermen, not fish, so it’s only natural fishermen might consider seals as a competitive fishery.

“I call it ‘predator envy,’” says Stenson. Case in point: In 2020, capelin removals from fishing in one fishing area ranged around 16,000 tonnes, compared with removals by all predators (including but not limited to seals) ranging in the millions of tonnes. Even though natural pressures like predation and environmental conditions outrank fishing as contributing to stalled stock growth, DFO cut the capelin fishing quota by one-quarter this year. But what choice is there – the capelin population is in such dire shape it shows no signs of recovery under current conditions, reported DFO’s capelin scientist back in the spring.

Steaming toward the shrimp fishing grounds, Skipper Dwight Russell expects he’ll encounter more seals – what he calls a “ferocious eater” in the marine environment. Russell hopes science can help him connect the dots on what’s happening to wild fisheries in the North Atlantic ocean.

“It’s really hard to gauge,” Mr. Russell says. “I think there needs to be a lot more work done to understand the situation better.”

Jenn Thornhill Verma Jenn Thornhill Verma is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the author of Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys. Interested in more stories about climate change biodiversity? Sign up for the Globe Climate newsletter and read more here

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