Efforts by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to measure the impact of the massive seal population in Atlantic Canada are “woefully inadequate,” according to a newly released task force report.
The industry-led report — which was commissioned by DFO — disputes the department’s claims that, for the most part, seals are not harming fish populations.
“The high population abundance of grey seals and harp seals, which are at or approaching historic levels, are having a serious impact on the ocean ecosystem in Atlantic Canada. The extent of the impacts cannot be determined with the limited information held by DFO Science,” said the report released Wednesday.
“[The task force] considers the food, feeding and migration data for the harp and grey seal populations in Atlantic Canada to be woefully inadequate to accurately determine the role seals play in the northwest Atlantic ecosystem and the impacts on other ecosystem components.”
Created to gather input from industry
The seven-member Atlantic Seal Science Task Team was created two years ago to gather input from the fishing industry and stakeholders on DFO’s science related to seal predation on commercial fish stocks. Its work was supposed to be completed a year ago.
Industry has long argued that seals are having significant impacts on groundfish stocks, pelagic stocks, shellfish and salmon.
The report said except for some groundfish species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, “the response from DFO Science has been that there is no scientific evidence that seals are having any measurable impact on fish populations.”
The task force said current food requirements and feeding studies are not sufficient to determine the diet of harp or grey seals throughout the year or throughout their habitat range.
Millions of seals
The population of grey seals is estimated at over 400,000, mostly in the Sable Island colony off Nova Scotia.
The harp seal population is estimated at over 7.5 million.
Task force member Kris Vascotto of the Atlantic Groundfish Council said the federal government needs to fill in the information gaps in seal diets.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about understanding what is consumed, where it is consumed and when it is consumed,” Vascotto told CBC News after the report was released.
“So if we’re talking about any particular fish stock that we might be concerned about, it’s to understand when that fish stock may be interacting with seals, how much of them might be consumed, and what is the overall impact on that stock itself.”
The task force also called for more involvement by the fishing industry in seal science projects, better communications of the results, and more efforts to find markets for seal products.
DFO minister to respond
Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray is scheduled to deliver her response to the task force Thursday morning at the Corner Brook, N.L., headquarters of Barry Group Inc., one of the province’s largest seafood companies.
Task force chair Glenn Blackwood will also be on hand.
In 2008, DFO evaluated the effects of harp seals on fish stocks and found “harp predation was not a significant factor in the lack of cod recovery” and “there was no evidence that harp seals negatively impacted capelin population.”
DFO said the 2019 cod assessments determined harp seals aren’t primary drivers of cod abundance off the coast of Newfoundland or southern Labrador.
In the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, DFO scientists sampled grey seals in the Cabot Strait and showed seals were targeting cod that gather there in winter.
The DFO assessment found grey seals were preventing recovery of southern Gulf cod and predicted the stock is on the path to local extinction.