by Bruce Wark
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian chapter of Humane Society International is calling on Canadians to defend grey seals from a federal government that is bent on killing them by the thousands. She was reacting to a new report from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recommending the slaughter of well over 73,000 grey seals over a five-year period.
"It is up to Canadian voters and the Canadian public as a whole to defend our wild animals from government policies that exist only for short term political gain," Aldworth told the Coast during a telephone interview from her office in Toronto. She noted that the fishing industry has been putting sustained pressure on federal politicians to authorize such a cull.
"Canadians have got to get beyond the political rhetoric, read the science, learn the true role of seals in the ecosystem and speak up for these animals who cannot speak for themselves," she added.
The latest DFO report recommends a five-year experiment to find out if killing thousands of grey seals would lead to a recovery of cod stocks in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The report recommends killing 73,000 of the animals as well as thousands more to offset natural increases in the population.
"The recommended removal of 73,000+ grey seals will not lead to serious harm to the grey seal population in Atlantic Canada," the report says. "Substantial removals of grey seals will reduce natural mortality on large cod."
However, a Coast cover story in July quoted several local scientists who expressed doubts about the effectiveness and desirability of such a cull. The Coast had obtained a federal consultant's report on the feasibility and logistics of a $35 million, five-year plan to slaughter 220,000 grey seals on Sable Island.
Aldworth, who has been opposing commercial sealing since the late 1990s, visited Nova Scotia in February to observe and photograph the killing of about 100 grey seals on Hay Island in a protected wilderness area off the coast of Cape Breton.
"It was a truly brutal slaughter to observe" she says. "They were testing out a new low-velocity gun and many seals were shot and were still thrashing around and had to be clubbed and shot again. Baby seals were both clubbed and shot to death just inches away from each other."
Aldworth says she's hoping photos of the slaughter will convince the Nova Scotia government to stop the killing in an area that's supposed to be a nature reserve.
She says the latest recommendation to kill more than 73,000 seals could lead to a massive slaughter on Sable Island, the world's largest grey seal breeding ground.
"I have a certain level of frustration reading through this report. It is very clear that the cause of the cod stock collapse in the 1990s was human overfishing. But what the report doesn't mention is that when you fish a species to commercial extinction, there is every chance it will not recover," Aldworth says.
"Most good scientists today are talking about a lack of biomass in our ocean. They're talking about there not being enough life left in that ocean to sustain a recovery of the cod population and other vulnerable groundfish species. Blaming this on seals is illogical and it's not supported by the best available science."