Turning Seals into Scapegoats

Twillingate, Newfoundland——Kill seals, save cod. That’s the rule followed by the Canadian government, which this year authorized the killing of a quarter-million harp seals, whose burgeoning population could be having an effect on depleted stocks of Atlantic cod, their favorite food. By early May, the hunters were mopping up, shooting the seals bobbing along Newfoundland’s northern shore.

Fishermen in Canada’s Maritime Provinces cringe at the mention of seals, which are multiplying while the cod boats are idled at the pier. Last year, the Canadian government released counts showing the harp seal population in Atlantic Canada had reached 4.8 million, twice its size 15 years ago, and is increasing by 287,000 seals a year.

Scientists have found that seals feed primarily on small first- and second-year fish, which increases their impact on the species’ recovery. But scientists like W. Donald Bowen of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax, Nova Scotia say the idea that reducing seal populations would cause cod to rebound is “unfounded.” He adds, “We don’t know what all the causes of the decline are; it’s very difficult to generalize and blame it on the seals.”

Seals have been “harvested” for clothing, food and income in Canada for five centuries; they have few other predators. Most seals today are killed by rifles. There is no sport hunting, and killing young harp or hooded seals is prohibited. Killing an animal for “parts”—the penis is an aphrodisiac in Asia—is also illegal.

There are some surprising critics of the hunt, including Garry Troake, a professional sealer and fisherman since 1977. Troake is worried that too many seal carcasses will create a glut on the market and generate massive bad publicity. “I say, let’s develop this industry like anything else, timber or mining,” Troake says. “It shouldn’t have anything to do with cod.”