Province of Nova Scotia
outdone even Canada's federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in bungling
"conservation", in approving
a seal hunt in a protected wilderness area on
Hay Island.Nova Scotia knows it has
entered a legal “grey area” – fines under the
Wilderness Areas Protection Act, the law that has been broken, can reach
$500K per day for an individual and up to $1 Million a day for a
corporation. And the Crown can be held liable
under the law, i.e. for the actions of
the Cabinet Minister and the provincial government department that
approved the illegal seal hunt. Media reported that Environment Minister
Mark Parent had “some misgivings” about the decision, but that he relied
on legal advice. The illegal hunt of a few thousand seals on Hay
Island this winter is doubtless a prequel to a much larger illegal slaughter
of grey seals that the fishermen want to carry out in
another protected area, at
Below is my letter to Mark Parent, requesting his written reasons for his
decision and explaining the value of seals to such wilderness areas.
February 17, 2008
Grey seal pups on Oak Island, February 2007.
Photo taken a couple of days before hundreds were killed in a
commercial seal hunt at this site.
The Honourable Mark Parent,
Nova Scotia Minister of Environment and Labour
5151 Terminal Road
Halifax, N.S. B3J 2T8
On behalf of the
Conservation Society (GSCS), I am writing to express my extreme disappointment
and disapproval of the grey seal hunt at Hay Island, which is not only
illegal and ecologically irresponsible, but an embarassment to the
province of Nova Scotia.
What information did you use
as the basis of your decision to approve the hunt? I understand you
were asked to approve the seal hunt by Ron Chisholm, provincial Fisheries
minister. In a media release, Mr. Chisholm claims he “looked carefully at
all the available information” and media reports explained that “fisheries
staff gave (Minister Parent) a detailed explanation of the need for the
hunt.” Mr. Chisholm explained that the reason his department made the
request was to “protect fish species in the Hay Island area.”
Media reports further suggest
that you relied on legal advice that you could permit the otherwise
illegal hunt if it was “for the responsible management, preservation or
restoration of indigenous biodiversity of a wilderness area.” The
Chronicle Herald reported that the detailed legal analysis considered your
possible “responsibility for the fish” that might swim in the water that
rises over the protected land at high tide, and that part of the basis of
your decision was “whether seals were eating the fish when the tide was in
and covering the land protected under the act.” Is this imagined as a
threat to the “biodiversity” of the wilderness area?
Mr. Parent, with all due
respect, that is ludicrous. The seals targeted by the hunt are recently
weaned, fasting and moulting, and not yet swimming babies. When these
young seals take to the sea, do government lawyers honestly worry that
they might return to the intertidal zone to eat fish? The truth is it
would do no harm
if they did. Why does Nova Scotia allow assessments with legal implications to be
completed and used as the basis for decisions without eliciting or
considering the opinions of properly recognized experts?
Did your review include an
assessment of the adequacy or accuracy of “all the available information”
that was considered by Mr. Chisholm? Did the material submitted to you by
Mr. Chisholm include the expert evidence on this same issue that was
recently obtained by the provincial
standing committee on resources? Dr.
Boris Worm, associate professor of
marine conservation at Dalhousie University, was recently invited by the committee to answer questions on
of the ocean'. Here are a few
snippets from the record of the
that must be
"available" to the government:
"MR. WORM: "...seals today are actually not hindering the
recovery of cod but actually are good for the recovery of cod because they
are the only left predators...a lot of what we know is based on hypotheses
and generalizations and a very scant understanding of how marine
ecosystems are working. Now some people would turn this around and say, we
don't know anything so let's just go ahead. I would say we know little, so
let's make use of the little bit we know and be very, very careful about
every new step. That's where I see us failing a little bit because every
new step is not done more carefully than the step before.
MR. MUIR: A very interesting thing...back on one of the slides that you
spoke from very early, you said that the prevalence of seals was actually
helping the recovery of the cod stock.
MR. WORM: Potentially, yes...
MR. THERIAULT: Why do you think those haddock aren't growing well on
MR. WORM: That's a very interesting question...It's growing slower, it's
maturing earlier, it's more skinny, it's not as fat...
MR. THERIAULT: We get most of our knowledge from lobster from the United
States, from Maine. That's where we learn it from. Thank you. That's
enough from me.
MR. CHAIRMAN (John MacDonell): Enough from you, I'm glad we got that in
Hansard. (Laughter)...In the fishery I always feel handicapped, because
you can't really tell for sure what's going on and what's there. So I look
at this as kind of a trophic house of cards where you're pulling these
cards out and you can't be sure just which card is going to make the whole
thing collapse or whatever.
a presentation by the Grey Seal
Conservation Society, and Mr. Theriault raised this issue of the haddock and them being
smaller and whatever. A position posed to us that day was the lack of
nutrient in the ocean ecosystem and we were given a presentation of
photographs back in the 1940s to present-day, where there were barnacles
on the rocks in the 1940s, but in the same location today there were none.
Also this was to make the case that the grey seals, even though they have
an increase in number, they have replaced this predator level that has
been removed from the oceans and they're actually putting nutrient back
into the system...I guess, at some point I would like to think that maybe
my grandchildren will say to me, there'll be a report that Nova Scotia's
oceans or the oceans of the world are far better than they were in 2007
and they'll say, Grandpa, weren't you a politician in 2007, so what did
you do or what could you have done, or whatever. But I'd like it to be a
positive story, the fact that I was here...
MR. WORM: ...The second problem we're having in the ocean is that once
it's bust, we don't know how to bring it back, other than leave it alone...We
can't engineer recovery; that's the thing, we can't engineer it...
MR. BELLIVEAU: ...You said three words, "It's not too late." I seriously
believe that we were here, and I think somebody's going to look back in 50
years time and think that we had some input in getting this back in the
Rather than considering Dr.
Worm’s expert opinion already available to the provincial
government, is it possible thatthe provincial Minister of Fisheries instead relied
“in good faith” on opinions from persons without
ecological credentials who told him “in good faith” what they believed
to be true? And did you as Minister of Environment accept this information pluslegal advice given to you “in good
faith”? Although possibly sincere, this process does not
seem to be a very strenuous
truth-seeking exercise. At what
point does government
“accountability” enter into this?
A year ago, the provincial
Crown was reported to be prosecuting individuals for offences under the
Wilderness Areas Protection Act that arose from illegal seal hunting at
Hay Island. Might the Crown next have to defend itself against a
prosecution under the same law? Could the matter go to court as a civil
case, say, if some well-heeled seal hunt protester decided to finance a
(A few years ago, the
provincial departments of Justice and Community Services relied on
legal advice and ended
up landing the Crown in an expensive mess – sorting out all the liability
that arose from the mishandled
institutional abuse which was then compounded by violation of the
rights of employees and former employees…that time, Nova Scotia taxpayers
ended up paying millions of dollars more that they needed to have
paid…because of errors made by the Crown, errors quite possibly made in
“good faith”…but I digress.)
Mr. Parent, the primary
objective of the
Wilderness Areas Protection Act is to “maintain and
restore the integrity of natural processes and biodiversity.” And that is
the primary reason you should not have approved the seal hunt.
A vital natural process that
sustains ocean island ecosystems is the movement of organic matter from
the sea to the land. This occurs as various forms of marine life are
washed up, crawl out, or are pulled out onto land, to be eaten by land
organisms and ultimately integrated into the soil, grass and forests of
Seabirds are an example of important
players, bringing fish onto the land to feed their young. The food they
eat is cycled through pathways that enrich the land. Without this natural
process the island soil becomes gradually poorer as rainfall and gravity erode
organic reserves. Counteracting the
natural washout tendency, some ocean fish seem to virtually offer
themselves up for consumption by land animals. Two examples are capelin
and grunion, small fish that swim from the open ocean to the edge of the
surf by the millions to spawn. Their eggs and spent carcasses feed a host
of land animals, representing an important basis of soil building.
Grey seal pups remain on land for a few weeks
after they are weaned by their mothers. The white fur is lost then
and replaced by a dappled grey coat. During this period, the seals
eat no fish or hay, but their urine will serve to fertilize the
grass. Weaker pups die on land (hold mouse over the photo above), to
be eaten by various land animals and ultimately enrich the land
Fascinating research from the
Pacific coast of North America has recently shown how
ecosystems are now impoverished as a result of the loss of salmon runs
that always delivered tons of rich food high into the mountains via their
annual one-way spawning migrations.
Land based consumers from grizzly bears, eagles, foxes, numerous other
birds, mammals and insects, to the very trees in the forests themselves,
were found to have depended heavily on “marine derived nitrogen” delivered
by salmon. Scientists determined that the entire ecosystem is now relatively
impoverished by the loss of the salmon runs.
On Hay Island, the grey seal
whelping congregation delivers an annual pulse of food to the island’s
land ecosystem. Grey seals take no food from the land, however eagles,
and many others feast on the placentas from the births of seal pups, as
well as the carcasses of the 10% or more of grey seal pups who will die
naturally on land. If a surviving seal pup should later eat a fish in the intertidal zone, does it then become reasonable for the Minister of the
Environment and government
lawyers to launch an assault on the whole herd?
I don’t expect the fishermen
have considered that the seals enrich the natural ecosystem on the island,
and they honestly do not realize that seal pupping is an important natural
process that the Minister is charged with protecting. We have missed key
subtleties, which is why the cod stocks are not rebuilding. Rather than
“exploding” seal populations, it is more accurate to say we have
“imploding” fish populations, as the fish starve. For the bulk of their lives, when
not on land, grey seals cycle nutrients in the sea in a pattern that
counteracts fish starvation.
As Dr. Worm and the law
tell us, animals in protected wilderness areas should be left alone.
To maintain vibrant life on Hay Island, there should never be a seal hunt
there. And on Nova Scotia's unique
Sable Island, the largest colony of grey seals in the world contributes to
the health of both the surrounding sea life and life on the island itself.
'Marine derived nitrogen' doubtless sustains the
famous Sable Island horses. Does the
Province next intend to authorize a seal hunt there?
dwellers owe a great debt to sea animals, perhaps especially to those who
have always approached land on their own volition bearing gifts: the
salmon, capelin, seabirds, turtles and seals. In their manner of birthing
their own kind, these ocean species also benefit
life on land. Grey seals are some of these very special animals, virtual
‘goodwill ambassadors’ who occasionally emerge from the sea to enrich the
land. However, the direct enrichment of modern humans by seals should come
only from our awe in their presence, and our enjoyment of healthy land
ecosystems, and never from killing them and selling their pelts.
I realize fishermen do not want to hear this, but that does not affect the
truth of the matter.
I offer a final fact for your
consideration, although with no supporting science: The Atlantic grey seal
is the basis of the ancient Celtic myth of the ‘Selkies’…a belief that
includes a warning to
humans against killing grey seals because it brings bad luck.
Mr. Parent, I wish you had
held public consultations, and that you had listened to your own
misgivings before you approved the seal hunt on Hay Island. Are you
convinced that due process was carried out? Otherwise, this
decision might discredit the integrity of other contentious decisions made
by the Department of Environment and Labour, like
your recent decision to
approve an open pit gold mine at Moose River, Nova Scotia.
Please send me a copy of your
written decision to approve the seal hunt on Hay Island along
with the facts on
which your decision was based.
Not a mother and pup, but two grey seal pups after
their mothers have left the whelping area. At this point, the pups
seem to stick together, seeking the company of their own kind. The
pup at right is still alive, and it has begun to shed its white
coat, but this one is too small and weak to survive long. On ice at
the beach edge, this pup will likely be consumed by land animals
after death, playing its part in an important natural process
whereby sea animals fertilize and enrich the land.