(home)       See the Grey Seal Conservation Society (GSCS) formed in April 2004.

Nova Scotia Grey Seal Hunt, 2004

(How, exactly, to Kill an Ocean)

 By Debbie MacKenzie

 This article is dedicated to Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, because he has fought harder for seals than anyone…and to the honest fishermen of Nova Scotia who have been trapped in a deadly fiasco of scientific misunderstanding along with the seals.

 March 2, 2004:  This year promises to be the one in which a major assault is mounted against grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) in Nova Scotia. If fishing industry groups, such as the newly organized “Grey Seal (Research and Development) Society,” have their way, grey seals in this province may soon face extermination. This will be one of the final nails in the coffin of all large marine animals that have thrived in Nova Scotia waters for millenia: this includes fish, marine mammals and seabirds, as a broad group. Urgent advice to the general public: Wake Up!!...and speak now or forever hold your peace, because there is only a short window of time during which these things can be saved.

 “And tell me grey seal
How does it feel
To be so wise
To see through eyes
That only see what's real
Tell me grey seal…”

 (Bernie Taupin: from the song “Grey Seal” recorded by Elton John on the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album, 1970)

  1. Why a grey seal hunt in Nova Scotia? (fishermen are upset and angry)
  2. Might the proposed cull threaten the survival of the grey seal population? (yes)
  3. Seals, ocean economics, and “understanding simple facts”: Will removing seals enhance or impede the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks?  (Not “common sense,” but fewer seals means fewer, hungrier fish, and the fish/seal relationship is not “simple.”)
  4. Seals, marine science, and “understanding complex facts”: Questions for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO): Where are we headed with the recently funded “new seal research?” (with $6 million) Are we getting close to discovering the secret to 25 million years of success of seals as “fish stock managers?” (or are we even asking this question?)
  5. Notes to the “Grey Seal (Research and Development) Society” (regarding truth-telling, science, and options for future employment)
  6. Shooting seals: recommended, but with cameras only

1. Why a grey seal hunt in Nova Scotia?

The frustration of the fishing industry has increased in recent years as cod stocks have continued to decline despite a decade-long fishing moratorium. Disappointingly, “natural mortality” of cod and other groundfish remains extremely high. Fish are losing ground and disappearing at smaller sizes than has ever been observed before. For instance, cod, which once survived in these waters for up to 50 years, are now experiencing virtually a complete natural die-off before the age of 7 or 8 years. What is the problem?

It seems obvious to many that a sensible corrective action for the troubled groundfish today would be the elimination of natural fish predators, such as seals. Fishermen are getting increasingly impatient with the situation…

“Seals continue to be a big problem for fishing industry” 

“Group calls for huge seal harvest”

“Seals go for soft, rich parts of cod, fishermen report” 

The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council has recommended to the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans that a seal hunt be organized to lower the number of grey seals on the Scotian Shelf, thereby hoping to reduce the “damage” that is being inflicted on the “fragile” groundfish stocks by seals. The “Grey Seal (R&D) Society” estimates that the seal population has reached 300,000 to 310,000 individuals, and that it would be reasonable to kill half of these: a cull of 150,000 grey seals, that is their proposal.

Fred McMahon summed up the basic argument in a satirical nutshell:

“Sadly, the debate over the impact of the increasing seal population on cod stocks is a debate between the delusional …Good heavens, say the environmentalists, seals aren't killing the cod - well, may one or two, but not more. What, one wonders, do the environmentalists think six million seals eat? Maybe they're giant, well-disguised plants, happily photosynthesizing as they frolic on the ice…Equally, many in Newfoundland believe our criminally irresponsible fishery didn't kill the northern cod - well maybe one or two cod, but not more.…Environmental groups need to understand simple facts. Seals eat fish. Cod are fish. Seals and cod live next by each. That leads to hostility, with cod on the losing side of the argument. For environmental groups, seals are environmentally important because they are cute.”  (McMahon, 1999)

2. Might the proposed cull threaten the survival of the Nova Scotia grey seal population? 

Yes, definitely.

Nobody knows how many grey seals live in Nova Scotia waters because the last scientific survey of the population was done in 1997. At that time the population was estimated to be about 112,000 seals, and was thought to be increasing by about 11% per year. DFO’s latest estimate was that “if the rate of growth has continued at past levels, then the population could have doubled since the last survey in 1997 to near 225,000 in 2002. (DFO 2003)

There are several reasons why the assumption of steady growth of the grey seal population might not be valid.

A large proportion of the Nova Scotia grey seal population has traditionally been centered on Sable Island, which is located far offshore, near the edge of the Eastern Scotian Shelf. The harbour seal population (a smaller seal) that also had a breeding colony on Sable Island may have already disappeared, and food shortage has played a role in their disappearance, according to scientists.

“Harbour seals…pup production has been monitored on Sable Island since 1973 and the number of pups born steadily increased through the late 1980s. However, during the 1990s, pup production fell rapidly and dramatically as a result of increased shark predation and presumed competition for food with the expanding grey seal population. Coincident with a decline in number was an increase in the mean birthing date of females, suggesting nutritional stress prior to the breeding season. By 2002, less than a dozen pups were born on Sable Island and in all likelihood Sable Island will become a non-breeding site in the future. Conversely, harbour seal populations in the Gulf of Maine and on the western part of the Scotian Shelf appear to be increasing.” (DFO 2003)

The sudden decline in the Nova Scotia offshore harbour seal population, and their apparent increasing presence near shore, echoes recent shifts in marine mammal populations that have been observed elsewhere in the world. The Steller sea lion population on Alaska’s offshore Aleutian Islands has fallen away rapidly in recent years, also showing signs of “nutritional stress,” while those living near the mainland still maintain their numbers. South African seals no longer breed at their traditional offshore island rookeries, but are increasingly colonizing the mainland and running into conflict with terrestrial predators. Mass starvation of seal pups in South Africa occurs now on a regular basis. The Hawaiian monk seal, inhabiting waters around the small outer Hawaiian islands, is disappearing due to starvation…and starving sea lions now regularly inundate marinas and estuaries in California…

There is a broad trend, therefore, of offshore seal populations becoming increasingly starved, and as a result moving closer to the mainland in search of food. This pattern has affected even the Nova Scotia harbour seal, a species whose habitat and normal prey overlaps that of the now-targeted grey seal. Similar shoreward shifts have been witnessed in whales and seabirds in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere. It is possible, therefore, that the increased sightings of grey seals near the Nova Scotia mainland in recent years reflect to some extent a shoreward migration of part of the Sable Island herd.

Seal populations can decline very rapidly, as has been shown in other areas, and by the Sable Island harbour seal, in which pup production fell from over 600 born in 1989 to about 25 in 1996 (DFO 2003). That was a 95% drop in seven years. It has now been seven years since the Nova Scotian grey seal population size was formally estimated by scientists, so nobody knows how many currently exist. Despite a feeding advantage that the grey seal may have over the harbour seal (the bigger grey seal can presumable dive deeper and may therefore survive longer if fish become concentrated near bottom, which does seem to be the case), the fortunes of the grey seal offshore may have recently turned down as well, unbeknownst to scientists or fishermen. It seems possible, indeed probable, that sharks have also increased attack rates on grey seals and their pups in the Sable Island area. (Actually, this has been observed by scientists: in recent years, a new occurrence on Sable Island has been the appearance of many dead seals on the beaches, bearing bizarre corkscrew-like cuts. This posed a bit of a mystery, until it was concluded that there has been a rash of unusual attacks on seals by Greenland sharks.)

Why has DFO counted harbour seal pups more recently than grey seal pups? This appears likely to relate to the timing of the births: harbour seals give birth in early summer, but grey seals do so during winter. The birthing/nursing period is the only season during which reasonable estimates can be made of the sizes of seal populations. Early summer offers more agreeable weather for scientists to travel to a remote offshore island, and this (plus inadequate funding), I suspect, explains the lack of recent counts of grey seals. At least one grey seal gave birth in the vicinity of the busy waterfront in Halifax Harbour this February, however, since a pup’s photo was recently published in the Halifax Herald newspaper.

A shoreward migration of grey seals might appear to be a “rapidly expanding” population when it is not. And it is within the realm of possibility that the rash proposal of the “Grey Seal (R&D) Society” to kill 150,000 seals will eliminate them all. Rapid shifts have been observed in many populations of marine animals recently, including many species of fish, and basing a seal kill figure on extrapolating 7-year-old data may prove to be a fatal error.

Such extrapolation exercises have proven to be wildly off the mark before this. In 1992, for instance, DFO’s mathematical extrapolations envisioned a thriving Atlantic Canadian cod fishery by 1995, but a devastatingly opposite scenario ensued. More recently, a mathematical extrapolation by DFO has concluded that the “baitfish” population has mushroomed in Nova Scotia waters (a “500-fold increase” in twenty years), but this cannot be true since baitfish predators from fishermen to cod, to whales and seabirds, are experiencing greater difficulty in finding them. Assessment by number extrapolation, based on assumptions that conditions are basically stable, now appears to be completely unreliable as the entire ocean ecosystem shows signals of undergoing a fundamental, but poorly understood, transformation. Bottom line: we have exactly no idea how many grey seals are currently in Nova Scotia waters, but there are many reasons to anticipate a “natural” decline. There may already be fewer than 150,000.

The “Grey Seal (R&D) Society’s” mathematician, besides inflating even DFO’s maximum (and highly uncertain) population extrapolation, has not subtracted the number of grey seals that have already been killed by fishermen. In recent years DFO has formally permitted Nova Scotia fishermen to kill “nuisance seals” that are “interfering” with fisheries. In practice this has meant not only the shooting of seals found in the vicinity of fishing gear, but it also has effectively endorsed a “seek and destroy” activity. Beyond shooting seals, lobster fishermen set large leg-hold traps on bottom with their fishing gear. Baited with fish, these traps clamp shut on the muzzle of seals who try to take the bait. Nasty! A seal “hunt” has already been conducted along the Nova Scotia coast, and undoubtedly thousands of seals have already been eliminated. But there has not been a requirement here that seal kills be counted or reported.

Many people, including a lot of fishermen and certain politicians, seem to feel that driving seals towards extinction would be no great loss. After all, the public has been often reminded that “seals are not out there eating turnips”… No, indeed, that is one unassailable argument, because seals do not eat turnips. Seals eat fish. On that point, seals are “guilty as charged.” And, since times are tough and there are not many fish left in the sea, the needs of humans must take priority over the needs of seals. Or at least, this seems to be the widely accepted “logic.” Voices raised in protest of killing seals in Nova Scotia are a rarity. It is generally believed that, even if killing seals does not help the fish, that it certainly cannot hurt. But that assumption is wrong, killing seals can hurt the survival odds for fish…and placing just a few more cards on the table shows why.

3. Seals, ocean economics and “understanding simple facts”: Will removing seals enhance or impede the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks?  

McMahon listed four “simple facts” for consideration by “environmental groups”:

  1. Seals eat fish.
  2. Cod are fish.
  3. Seals and cod live next by each.
  4. That leads to hostility, with cod on the losing side of the argument.

The first three points are “simple” facts, but the fourth is not. It is an interpretation of “facts” that rests on biased assumptions. First, transferring human hostility towards seals onto codfish is inappropriate. While it is abundantly clear that cod have lost the “argument” with people, it cannot be concluded that their “argument” with seals has been lost too…or even that the two species were arguing in the first place.

A few less-simple facts are these:

  1. The internal workings of living systems are masterpieces of subtle, finely-tuned dynamic relationships between many different parts. Nature is clever, resilient and adaptable, but all parts, including materials held in reserve, are necessary for peak performance.
  2. This is as true for the whole ocean as it is for a single fish.
  3. Individual predator-prey relationships are only a tiny slice of the whole pie of what runs ocean life. Fish belonging to “prey” species depend on natural predators to ensure that individual fish get enough to eat. This works two ways: (1) Predators eat the prey fish. Because fish reproduce in such phenomenal numbers, they would self-destruct in short order due to starvation and suffocation if they all survived. (2) Predators divert/excrete ingested materials in a pattern that efficiently stimulates plankton production, boosting the steady flow of energy and oxygen that sustains the small fish.
  4. Natural predators like seals impose a “balance” between the number of cod alive and the amount of food available to cod. They do this by juggling both ends of the equation: by lowering cod numbers while simultaneously stimulating food/oxygen production for cod.
  5. Cod and other fish are now showing signs of severe starvation in Nova Scotia. (DFO 2003, FRCC 2004)
  6. The oxygen content of the coastal ocean has been noted to be falling in parts of Atlantic Canada, including the Scotian Shelf (Harrison et al 2003), in line with a global trend (Anon 2003).
  7. The “whole pie” of ocean life depends on photosynthesis, or plant growth, to supply its food/energy and oxygen needs.
  8. Changes in plankton and seaweed point toward a decline in the rate of marine photosynthesis, and there has been a significant dilution in the swarming small animal component of plankton, the zooplankton, which is absolutely critical for fish growth (Harrison et al, 2003, DFO 2003). This is a very serious negative development.

The cause for alarm about the health of marine life in Nova Scotia extends far beyond comparing the numbers of codfish and seals. The entire ocean ecosystem appears to be losing strength, and stress is mounting related to the supplies of both food and oxygen. What about the seals? What role are they playing, and what explains their recent increase in “brazen” behaviour as they interfere today with human fishing activities?

Are fish being adversely affected by a natural predator “imbalance,” as is suspected by many fishermen and a few scientists?

The impression of “imbalance,” that many people get today when they compare rising seal numbers and falling cod numbers, is but an illusion. Natural fish predators have in reality been scaled back greatly, in proportion to the shrinking numbers of small prey fish. The vast majority of those natural predators were large fish, and these have virtually disappeared from Atlantic Canada. (DFO 2003) Therefore, the role of thinning the numbers of small fish to match their food supply falls to a relatively greater extent on seals today, than it did in the past. The players are struggling to maintain the traditional “balance,” in which energy flowed rapidly through plankton, fish and seals, but evidence that the system is on the verge of “imbalance” comes in the form of starving cod and negative plankton shifts, not in the absolute number of seals per cod.

The shift away from large fish predators towards seal predators acts as an oxygen-conserving strategy for the ocean, because seals metabolize the food they eat by drawing on the atmospheric oxygen reservoir rather than by using oxygen from seawater. Fish use oxygen from the water. The fish => seal predator shift is therefore a step in the right direction in an ocean affected by diminishing oxygen content, such as we see today, and this seems certain to represent a normal compensatory mechanism built into the “physiology” of the ocean. It is typical of the flexible self-stabilizing functions relied upon by all living things.

Seals are doing more today than thinning the numbers of small fish; they are also increasingly acting in a scavenger role, rather than strictly as a traditional fish “predator.” Where seals once ate only very small cod, one or two years old, now they are eating older fish (up to age eight), sometimes managing only to eat the bellies, and seals are taking more dead fish that have been caught in fishermen’s nets. This behaviour change – of taking larger fish – reflects the increasingly malnourished and debilitated condition of the prey fish. If they were better fed, a seal would be unable to catch cod at these sizes. Therefore, these fish deaths by seal predation might be more accurately described as deaths due to starvation, with subsequent consumption by scavengers. (Scientists, however, interpret all cod flesh found in seal stomachs as evidence of fish deaths due to “seal predation.”) Lacking an oxygen-sparing scavenger, such as a seal, these exhausted or already dead fish might rot on bottom instead, in a bacterial process which can exert a severe oxygen drain on the lower water column, to the point of suffocating more fish and triggering a vicious cycle in which great numbers of not-yet-starved fish die too. Episodic fish kills due to oxygen-depleted water (“hypoxia”) are an increasing problem worldwide, and this dynamic may have been implicated in an unprecedented, major cod die-off that occurred last spring in Newfoundland.

The “brazen” behaviour of seals today, intelligent animals that once avoided threatening human contact, seems to reflect their increasing desperation in finding enough to eat. It is not only a world of watered-down resources for plankton-feeding fish, but also for fish-eating seals. Seals are in trouble too, and are getting very close to “hitting the wall” along with the fish.

If fish are now being adversely affected by shortages of food and oxygen, a weakened plankton component, what can be done about it? Can the natural activity of seals compensate to any extent for these problems?

Yes…although ocean life has now been severely depleted by fishing, the components still survive that might help to revive the system as we have known it. Seals and fish both stimulate the growth of marine plankton, the ultimate source of food and oxygen, by the appropriately timed release of plant-fertilizing animal waste products and tiny, rich eggs, which feed and strengthen the zooplankton component. The eggs also give a little kick-back of stimulation to the plant plankton. In an elaborate strategy which involves subtly tapping into the largest organic reservoir in the ocean, dissolved food, at each level marine predators manage to “give back” something which is of slightly greater energetic value than what they have “taken.” The greater the numbers, and the more layers of marine predators, the more food and oxygen the ocean plankton was stimulated to produce. This seems certain to have been the key to survival of the vast populations of vigorous animal life that recently inhabited the ocean. Exquisitely designed to work together, flexible, and tapping into various reserves as needed, there was never an “argument” between the players, but a grand cooperative effort maintained peak plankton performance for the benefit of all. Ocean life functions (…functioned?) brilliantly as a single living entity.

It seems now, however, as if the critical reserves that maintained modern marine animals have been dangerously lowered. As a group, the cooperative, interdependent animal species appear to have “pulled out all the stops” in their efforts to maintain “balance.” Egg output has been maximized, as fish stocks across the board are now spawning sooner, and at smaller sizes than they did in the past. Egg output from seals has increased too. In their warm bellies, seals host masses of worms, that produce phenomenal numbers of eggs, which are released into the water with the feces of the seal and act to enrich the zooplankton. One grey seal can discharge 5 million eggs per day, and the worm load carried by seals has reportedly been increasing as zooplankton has fallen. Seals and cod have therefore made similar concessions, and are working toward a common goal, which is robust plankton growth. They are not now, nor have they ever been, “arguing.”

“Maybe they're giant, well-disguised plants, happily photosynthesizing as they frolic on the ice…”

Ironically, McMahon’s hyperbolic description of seals contains a nugget of truth. The relationship of seals and fish to photosynthesis in the ocean is rather like that of tree trunks in the forest: trunks and branches are living tree elements that do not capture the sun’s energy directly, but that have been built by drawing on materials produced by the specialized green leaf cells that do. Tree trunks in the forest, and fish/seals in the sea, form a supporting structure that stores materials for seasons when they are needed, actively obtains necessarily plant fertilizing elements, and then delivers these up to the sun-exposed green cells with perfect timing to maximize the rate of photosynthesis. (Do we consider tree trunks to be “happily photosynthesizing?” If we do, then so are the seals.)

If the fish-seal cooperative loses its “balance,” a quantum downshift to a low-energy, low-oxygen ocean can be anticipated. And this change promises to shock us with its abruptness. Bacteria, uncontrolled blooms of primitive algae, and sluggish invertebrates like jellyfish, will dominate the sea, and the transformation will be permanent on the time scale that is relevant to living humans. After millions of years, marine life will gather strength again, reserves will be rebuilt, and a new assemblage of large, high-energy animals will probably emerge. This pattern has played out a few times before in the history of life on Earth when mass extinctions have affected marine life. “Rebuilding” has always been a very slow process.

When a fisherman hooks a fish now, and a “brazen” seal grabs the other end and pulls back, the message is that the ocean is in trouble and can no longer afford to give up its valuable resources to a “top predator” who has never been properly integrated into the ecosystem, to one who is essentially a parasitic “free-loader” and has not yet learned how to play by nature’s rules for “sustainable fishing”…

4. Seals, marine science, and “understanding complex facts”

The problem is that the facts of the fish-seal story are not simple. It is a very complex issue. It is difficult to explain in a 30-second sound bite how the ocean works, how it is changing, and how this subject in its entirety must be considered in decisions about whether or not people should kill more seals. The general public is busily distracted today, paying scant attention to issues that they believe do not really concern them. And a steady stream of government-endorsed anti-seal propaganda has been conveyed to Canadians by the media. Just quick little messages sent repeatedly, this is the way that people tend to absorb “truths” today. Advertising works.

“Seal cull needed”

“Fishermen’s enemy No.1”

What is the role of government scientists, of those in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who have the expert credentials and the power to sway policies on seal killing? Surely they understand the complexities of the issue, have carefully weighed all of the shifting variables and have considered in detail the risk:benefit outcomes of the various possible courses of human action?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Marine science has generated the data (fewer fish, fewer zooplankton, more seals, falling oxygen, underfed fish, changed seal behaviour, etc.) but has not connected these dots in a coherent explanation that accounts for the overall pattern of shifts that are occurring today. Sadly, scientists have fanned the flames of outrage against seals by calculating only the tonnage of “commercially important” fish that is being “consumed” by seals. They have never quantified the beneficial input (of food and oxygen) to the ocean that is mediated by living seals, because they have not been taught to consider these elements. Failure to see this “other side of the story” will prove to be the fatal flaw in “fisheries science,” which is simply too young and has not yet progressed to the point of challenging its earliest underlying assumptions. In an approach that is still far too crude, our ocean “doctors” commit repeated blunders as they try to “sustainably manage” marine life one piece at a time. Seeing everywhere changes that they did not anticipate and cannot explain, such as those that have been discussed here, DFO Science still forges ahead with the status quo…and I am truly alarmed that they can write, regarding the Eastern Scotian Shelf ecosystem:

“Such changes do not necessarily translate to an unhealthy ecosystem but simply one that is functioning in a different manner than in the past.” (DFO 2003)

I can only conclude that “ecosystem health” is somehow being confused with cash flow generated by the fishing industry. Lucrative crustacean fisheries still exist, which might explain DFO’s lack of alarm over the current generalized declining condition of marine life. But the physical condition of lobsters caught in Nova Scotia is now declining too, fishermen are finding many weak ones, dead ones, soft shells and unusually low meat content…and it is not at all clear that DFO sees this problem, or that they anticipate what will happen next.

The heightened concern about the impact of seals on fish stocks recently resulted in the designation of an additional $6 million in Canadian public funding for “new seal research.” What is DFO doing with this money?

In 2003, in northern Nova Scotia, the “Fisheries Science Collaborative Project on Seals” was implemented. (FRCC 2004)  The “main focus” of the project is “to study seal diet,” and the “harvesters” involved feel that it has gone very well and “should be expanded to other areas next year.” Fishermen have been hired to shoot seals, and it sounds as if this might be one of the “seal exclusion zone” projects that some in the fishing industry have been clamoring for. “Exclusion” calls for the elimination of every seal from an area. This reckless abuse of marine life might be expected from frustrated fishermen who cannot understand what has gone wrong, but it is ridiculous that scientists should condone it, and it is a horribly misguided waste of tax dollars. The public is paying to deliver a further disabling blow to an already critically ill ocean.

I do not doubt that DFO will dumbly accept the “Grey Seal (R&D) Society’s” proposal to decimate the Nova Scotia grey seal population. Maybe they will even pay them to do it. Forming a “society” perhaps creates an entity that can successfully apply for government funding for a “worthwhile” project(?)

Knowing that pressure has been mounting in recent years to cull the Nova Scotia grey seals, that the offshore harbour seals have declined dramatically, and that grey seal numbers have not been assessed since 1997, has DFO at least decided to fund a Sable Island grey seal survey for the winter of 2004? (the pups are usually born in February) It would be good for the public to see an outline of where the $6 million is being spent on “seal research.”

Unfortunately, the Canadian government has a stated agenda to support the marketing of seal products as an important “economic activity,” and is working hard to overcome trade barriers such as the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act. I fear that some of the “new seal research” might be focused on product development and marketing rather than on original ecosystem studies. DFO has been conditioned to worry intently about “economic health,” while blithely assuming that “ocean health” will take care of itself. This is why this government department should lose the “oceans” part of its mandate.

Scientists seek credibility by working with and reporting on numbers. This is not inherently invalid, but it can be ruinously biased and misleading, as it has been in the “calculations” of the impact of seals on fish stocks. The “negative impact” has been deduced from analysis of seal stomach contents, seal blubber, metabolic studies on seals, and estimates of seal numbers. But a calculation of the “positive impact” of seals on fish would necessitate the consideration of a very different set of variables, and would be a highly complicated exercise. We do not have the time now to start out and try to “do the math” on the net effect of seals on the ocean, before we conclude that they contribute positively to ocean health and are therefore worth preserving. The much-touted “precautionary approach” of science to the management of ocean resources should demand that seals be protected now.

Prior to human exploitation, the waters of Atlantic Canada teemed with unbelievable numbers of fish, while supporting far larger seal populations than those in existence today. The fish-seal secret of the ages was cooperation and subtle mutual support. Seals have 25 million years of successful coexistence with fish to their credit. What do we have? We are on the verge of discovering that seal exclusion zones will also prove to be lifeless fish exclusion zones…and when we do realize this, today’s fisheries science will have “hit the wall” too.

5. Notes to the Grey Seal (R&D) Society

I strongly discourage you from killing seals in the mistaken idea that this will improve the health of fish stocks. Even though it strikes you as “common sense,” you are dead wrong about that.

Before you kill any more seals, rent the movie “Andre” and watch it with your children or grandchildren. No…this is not another environmentalist arguing that seals are “cute” (heaven forbid!), but I encourage you to consider how intelligent these animals are, and to consider the children. Seals know that you are dangerous, and would avoid your fishing gear if they could afford to, but the imperative to eat over-rides caution. The seals are telling you what you already know: how dismal the fishing is today.

There is no hope for any of us if we do not find the courage to face the whole truth. Here is what I see:

Fishermen “feel strongly” that “something needs to be done about seals.” I hear this from those who discover their nets in tatters, with large holes torn in them, and containing only the worthless remains of a few half-eaten fish. This is the work of seals, and fishermen lose money as a result. To the fishermen this is unacceptable, and I think I understand how they “feel.” But the problem is that human “feelings” have often directed us towards disastrous courses of action throughout our history. This is why we have agreed as a society to make decisions, such as those regarding the wise use of precious natural resources, based on “facts” instead of “feelings.” We have therefore handed the reins of marine conservation to “science,” trusting that it will offer fair and sensible guidance based on an honest and objective consideration of all the “facts.”

Fishermen today often express frustration and outrage at DFO’s “management” style, based on issues of resource allocation and fishing rules. However, as non-scientists they tend not to challenge DFO’s interpretation of fundamental ocean ecosystem dynamics. For instance, fishermen are not likely to challenge DFO on the plankton question, but maybe they should.

My interpretation of the normal dynamic interaction pattern between fish-seals-plankton-food/oxygen, differs sharply from what has long been accepted by DFO and by marine science in general. They see plankton production as being driven by weather patterns, and potentially altered only by factors such as climate change and pollution. Scientists have not envisioned what I have described: a growth-stimulating effect on plankton exerted by fish, seals, and all other marine animals. Whether fishermen prefer DFO’s theory or mine may come down to “opinion,” or maybe to “feeling,” but the ominous significance of the “fact” of declining plankton production cannot be lost on those who harvest fish for a living. Fish growth undeniably depends on plankton growth. That one is a “simple” fact.

What do we know about “declining plankton” and why has DFO not been keeping the public informed on this issue?

It seems that DFO has been quietly trying to figure out what is going on, why zooplankton counts have unexpectedly fallen. This negative change in Nova Scotia waters cannot be connected convincingly to climate change or to pollution, and the leading hypothesis is not that less zooplankton are being produced (as I see), but that more zooplankton (perhaps “too many”) are being eaten by the vast numbers of plankton-feeding “small pelagic” fish that are now “dominating” the coastal waters of Nova Scotia. I refer to the “500-fold” increase in numbers of mackerel/herring/capelin that has occurred since 1980 (according to DFO 2003). This scientific assessment boggles the mind of anyone who has actually been looking for these fish…and it seems to make starving codfish and seals a theoretical impossibility. However, I and the fishermen both know that they are real. On this latest baitfish assessment DFO has landed wildly off the mark, and this has resulted from their fundamental lack of understanding of how the ocean works and their failure to appreciate the significance of the many variables that are changing today.

If ocean plankton production has fallen, this is a disaster for both DFO and the fishing industry. How can the Grey Seal Society make any assessment of the validity of my concerns and my arguments?

1. Consider that lobsters eat sunken plankton. The increasingly poor condition of Southwest Nova lobsters, their “low protein content,” is a warning signal. The appearance of smaller “berried” female lobsters in recent years has mirrored the shift towards earlier egg/spawn production that has occurred in virtually all ocean fish. This is nature trying to maintain “balance” by rebuilding the zooplankton, since this is the major ecological function of the offspring of fish, lobsters and seal worms. Very few of these survive beyond the plankton stage. (Spawning at smaller sizes, falling physical condition, and the loss of peripheral population components – the same patterns now visible in lobster – presaged the collapse of the Northern cod stock a decade ago…)

2. To get a “feel” for the reality of the plankton decline, fishermen in Nova Scotia might consider the long-term decline that has occurred in plankton-feeding barnacles along this coast. The unexplained retreat of barnacles since the 1940s can be well appreciated at Meteghan, Nova Scotia, and this change undoubtedly parallels a decline in plankton production. In 1948 it was written that: “The Meteghan shore is … subject to considerable wave action. It has a steeply cliffed coast of shale like rock, and the strata are commonly tilted up on edge… The (intertidal) zone at Meteghan has the same essential features that it has at Peggy Cove, but with some important modifications. Barnacles are more abundant here, and are crowded into a distinct belt in the upper part…” (Stephenson and Stephenson, 1972) Drive to Meteghan or travel there by boat. The southwest end of the Meteghan shoreline, well visualized from “Smuggler’s Cove,” matches the 1948 description written by the Stephensons. Look for the “distinct belt” of barnacles, “crowded” above the rockweed. It is not there. It is gone, because plankton-feeding in the fabled Bay of Fundy is not quite as easy as it used to be. (MacKenzie 2001) This reveals the truth about why the fish are in such trouble. Perhaps the Grey Seal Society could initiate a discussion with DFO about trends in plankton. My input has been ignored, but the department has long been conditioned to respond to the demands of angry fishermen.

The major disservice that DFO is now doing the fishing industry, and the Canadian public, is the maintenance of a false front of scientific understanding. A central myth is that “sustainable fishing” remains a real possibility and that the Science branch has the secrets of how this can be done. This continues to create false expectations for people involved in the fishing industry, and the resources of many have therefore been invested unwisely. Vast sums of taxpayers’ money have been thrown into this vacuum: the billions spent on “TAGS” as Atlantic Canada waited for the cod stocks to re-materialize is but one example. A decade later, DFO still cannot clearly explain what has happened to the once-phenomenal cod stocks, but the amazing thing is that this failure has not visibly rattled their confidence, nor the trust that the Canadian public has placed in their “scientific expertise.”

The fiasco came to a head, in my opinion, late in 2003 when DFO published its assessment of the “500-fold increase” in baitfish in Nova Scotia. Finding their numbers, plus the insinuation that these fish had weakened the plankton, to be outrageous, I wrote a critical column that was published in the Halifax Herald. I also issued a debate challenge to DFO through my website. But, silence…I then sent my concerns to their boss, the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. The Honourable Geoff Regan replied: “I suggest that you have your work submitted to a relevant scientific journal.” (Well, my major criticism was that if DFO is going to estimate the number of baitfish on the Scotian Shelf, their conclusions should at least be verified by surveying the area with a “fishfinder” (sonar).)

Since 2001, when I first tried to discuss with DFO the alarming decline in plankton-feeding shoreline barnacles, and some new thinking on ocean food-production dynamics, I “feel” as if I have been avoided like the plague. My request for a meeting at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography was denied, deflected with “there is nothing we can fruitfully discuss at this time.” I disagree: at this time there is not “nothing,” but rather “next to nothing” to discuss, and only in the sense that most marine life has already disappeared.

But there are a few “things” remaining, including some seals. Could we please at least try to “fruitfully discuss” the seals? If we do, at the end of the day DFO might finally discover the elusive “secret to sustainable fishing."  I am betting that the grey seals have it.

The grey seal, fishermen claim, is “not cute.” To be a solo kayaker, and to be followed by one of these large “horsehead” seals (males can reach 800 pounds)…I have been in this position, and have been quite unnerved as I was stared down by this “brazen” monster, the grey seal. But this animal, “le loup marin,” is one awesome beast. Hauled out in groups, grey seals emit haunting howls like the baying of wolves Their wild cries blend perfectly with the calls of seabirds, blowing whales, and the pounding surf. Listen to this: it is the ancient symphony of marine animal life, of the air breathers who melded their lives perfectly with those of the fish, and who work together to optimize the health and success of their prey. If we continue the killing, however, there will soon be none of these noisemakers left, but the cold ocean waves alone. And do not kid yourself that there will be a “sustainable fishery” thriving beneath this silent future sea.

Dear Members of the Grey Seal (R&D) Society,

I sympathize with your frustration with the seals today, but I urge you to realistically consider the “facts” before us, and your alternatives. If you shoot more seals, keep in mind that you are knocking down the few last supporting elements that the faltering fish stocks naturally depend upon for survival. This is the literal truth of the matter: it is about food, and it is about oxygen. It is also about whales, seabirds, and all other natural fish predators. DFO cannot be trusted to know how to save you, the fish, the seal or the lobster. It seems possible that DFO is busily trying to “save” itself at this moment, since scientists cannot fail to realize that their credibility is crashing with their recent fantastically wrong herring assessment, and all that hinges on that (meaning the unexplained falling zooplankton, which in reality signals a generalized system crash). The real nature of the ocean crisis (starvation, falling plankton production) and the major failure of the conservation strategies of marine science will soon become public knowledge. Too many things are not adding up, and the whole enterprise is clearly on the verge of an important upheaval (…because, it seems that the sun is not, after all, orbiting around the Earth…)

When this happens, when people clearly see the uncontrolled downward spiral and become frightened by the realization of the full scope of what is being lost in the sea, there is apt to be a great surge of interest in belatedly “protecting” and in trying to actively “rebuild” the remaining marine life. This may realistically represent the future employment of many who are fishing today. Wishing for yesterday, or blindly insisting that we are properly “on course” now and will successfully maintain the status quo, these approaches will not preserve anything. People and the ocean are in very deep trouble. Showing living grey seals to “eco-tourists” will be feasible for the longest time in the relatively richest ocean areas, such as the Bay of Fundy, but killing them today hastens the demise of everything. And “everything” includes us.

Who am I?

I am a scientifically literate private citizen, with lifelong ties to the commercial fishing industry in Nova Scotia, who has spent the last six years in independent full-time study of marine science and the current problems with marine life. I am not a “doctor,” but rather I am a nurse. I feel as if I am overseeing a critically ill patient who is sliding frighteningly into an irreversible state of shock. Vital signs and laboratory results are in serious disarray, as the patient’s self-stabilizing abilities are lost. Yet, the “doctor in charge” here seems able to do little more than check the thermometer. He has, however, noticed a recent increase in the rate of breathing by our patient, so he is contemplating taking corrective measures for this “new problem.” (Such a thin patient should not be breathing so fast…) The doctor reckons that obstructing the airflow might help to right our patient’s “imbalance.” This doctor is egotistical, he is not listening to me, and he is giving all the orders…and I begin to suspect that one reason he is so blind to the truth is that this guy has been tied all along to the business of selling our patient’s blood. Not only missing key “facts,” today’s ocean doctor lacks any real “feeling” for his patient. This is my analogy to the proposed grey seal hunt – and it is not only the fishermen who are outraged, angry and frustrated.

Debbie MacKenzie

6. Shooting seals: recommended, but with cameras only


Grey seals, male (R) and female (L)..."happily photosynthesizing?"

Photos, including grey seal pup image at top of page, courtesy Ted D'Eon

(click photos to enlarge)


“It seems brutally apparent that the continuing survival of (all seals) in Canadian waters will depend, not on enlightened and honest policies applied by government departments and their patrons and lackeys, but on independent conservation organizations such as may take up the battle on behalf of the grey seal.”  - Farley Mowat, in his book, Sea of Slaughter, 1984.


“Your ideas about "biological forcing" and fish-egg fertilizers deserve thorough scrutiny. If you are right, we need a rapid wide-scale response by ocean managers.”        –        Dr. Martin Willison, Dalhousie University, N. S.


“People like you are the only hope we have…” – DFO stock assessment biologist


“We’re good, hard-working people who only want to make a living.” – N.S. fisherman

“Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road…

“And tell me grey seal
How does it feel
To be so wise
To see through eyes
That only see what's real
Tell me grey seal…”

(Bernie Taupin)

See also: Trust the Seals, Fear the Microbes... position statement against the Canadian harp seal hunt, March 2005,
and Seal Oil Leaves a Fishy Aftertaste... May 2006

 Comments?        Send me email at: Codmother@bellaliant.net  visit my HOME PAGE or,


Sign My Guestbook Guestbook by GuestWorld View My Guestbook


Grey Seal Conservation Society (GSCS)

Grey Seals of Lobster Bay, N.S., Ted D’Eon’s photos: http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/ted509/gs/index.html

Grey Seal articles with photos and statistics:



“Andre,” a great seal/kid movie: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/6304168659/104-2460592-3024717?v=glance 

"Seals and Cod"


Anonymous 2003. An Assessment of Coastal Hypoxia and Eutrophication in U. S. Waters. National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. www.nccos.noaa.gov/documents/coastalhypoxia.pdf

DFO, 2003. State of the Eastern Scotian Shelf Ecosystem. DFO Ecosystem Status Report 2003/004. www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/csas/csas/status/2003/ESR2003_004_E.pdf

FRCC, 2004. 2004/2005 Conservation Requirements for Groundfish Stocks on the Scotian Shelf and in the Bay of Fundy (4VWX5YZ). FRCC.2004.R.2.

Harrison G, D Sameoto, J Spry, K Pauley, H Maass, and V Soukhoutsev. 2003. Optical chemical and biological oceanographic conditions in the Maritimes/Gulf Regions in 2002. CSAS Research Document 2003/072.

MacKenzie, D. 2001. The Barnacle Zone. http://www.fisherycrisis.com/barnacles.html

MacKenzie, D. 2002. The Downturn of the Atlantic Cod.

MacKenzie, D. 2003. DFO Ignores Ocean Fertility. Halifax Herald, Nov. 16, 2003.

McMahon, Fred. 1999. Newfoundland Sealing Videos. http://www.aims.ca/Media/1999/prmar1499.html

Stephenson, T. A. and Anne Stephenson, 1972. Life Between Tidemarks on Rocky Shores. W. H. Freeman and Company.

web analytics

web analytics


      Home            About          What's New         Article Index        Contact