Senators of all stripes are recommending that tens of thousands of grey seals be culled on Canada's east coast to bolster cod stocks but they admit they don't know whether the slaughter will have any effect on the number of fish.
Fabian Manning, the chair of the Senate's fisheries committee which tabled a report on the grey seals on Tuesday, said the study was undertaken because of concern in Atlantic Canada and Quebec about the expanding size of the herd and the recovery of cod and ground fish stocks.
The report, which comes after a year of study, calls for a cull of grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence aimed at reducing the population by 70,000 animals. The senators said the killing should be done by trained sealers under the monitoring of at-sea observers.
"There's questions on both sides," Mr. Manning told a news conference. "We're not saying this is an answer to all of the concerns that are out there. We are hoping that this is a step in the right direction and that the information that is gathered through this process will be of long-term benefit the people of that area."
The Senate committee heard from more than 40 witnesses, most of them from the sealing or fishing industry. Its report urges the federal government to do more to promote grey seal products and to develop domestic and international markets for them, especially seal oil which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The senators suggested that seal oil could be included in future editions of the Canada Food Guide.
The total population of grey seals in Eastern Canada, which were hunted until just a few thousand animals remained in the early 1960s, increased to between 330,000 and 410,000 animals in 2010.
Elizabeth Hubley, a Liberal senator for Prince Edward Island, told the news conference that the stocks of cod are so low off the east coast that they have been assessed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. She said the committee based its findings on the same scientific advice that was provided to the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council which has also recommended a cull.
But the committee was told by independent scientists that there are no studies to suggest the culling of seals will have any effect on the cod stocks and that a large-scale slaughter of the animals could have unexpected and harmful effects on the environment.
Cheryl Fink, the director of the seal program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said it is clear that the senators began the study with the objective of recommending a cull.
"It's not supported by available science," said Ms. Fink. "Basically this is a political move to appease the fishing industry and deflect the real problems facing fisheries which are over-fishing and bycatch (fish caught unintentionally)."
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada, said the senators were recommending an experiment that will be conducted at taxpayers' expense because the government will have to pay sealers to kill the seals.
Even though the government has allowed the harvest of 60,000 grey seals in each of the past two seasons, fewer than 200 were taken last year and none this year because markets for their pelts have gone dry and the weather has been too warms for proper ice.
"This is yet another subsidy to the sealing industry," said Ms. Aldworth.
The cull would not extend the Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, a new national park which is home to the largest grey seal population in Canada. But the committee recommended that the government re-assess the various options for the Sable Island herd.