Something (else) is Rotten in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
by Debbie MacKenzie, March 8, 2005

Which is worse, environmentally: the remote possibility that a ship will spill one drop of oil, or the deliberate dumping of a massive amount of harmful waste into an area of sensitive fish habitat, where a threatened cod stock struggles to survive? Canadian law strictly prohibits each of these environmental hazards. But law enforcement varies, as sometimes officials seem to look the other way. Consider the polluting impact of the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Last week, the Farley Mowat, a ship belonging to seal hunt protesters, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was detained for four days in Halifax Harbour while federal officials enforced a new, strict anti-oil-pollution order on the vessel. The activists hastily complied with unexpected new orders, and installed what had till then been officially considered unnecessary, a redundant back-up system for waste oil containment. Had they been unable to modify the Farley Mowat so quickly, the protesters might have been prevented from reaching the Gulf of St. Lawrence in time for the mid-March start of the seal hunt. But, better safe than sorry. (Photo of the Farley Mowat in Halifax Harbour, at right, from www.seashepherd.org )

The conscientious concern of our federal officials in safeguarding the sensitive Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem against the harmful effects of oil pollution is commendable. After all, fish and other marine animals in the Gulf face more intense threats from habitat degradation than they do in many other regions in Atlantic Canada. The Gulf contains relatively stagnant bottom water because it is sheltered from the great ocean currents that skirt the outer coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. This physical characteristic of the Gulf of St. Lawrence makes it naturally vulnerable to the deadly problem of rot settling in on bottom, a subtle process by which bacterial decomposition of dead organisms drains oxygen from the water, and renders it lethal to fish. Called hypoxia, or “dead zones,” this is a serious rising threat in semi-enclosed waterways globally.

DFO scientists have recently published their finding that a massive region of the Gulf contains bottom water oxygen levels so low today that cod and other fish can be (and likely are being) sickened or killed as a result. The cod stock in the northern Gulf is in such bad shape that it has been listed under the Species At Risk Act. Under the Fisheries Act it is illegal to damage fish habitat by adding any “deleterious substance” to the water. “Deleterious” to current conditions in the Gulf is the addition of any more rot-fodder to the bottom water, because such pollution will only cause hypoxic conditions to intensify. This is not a new concept.

Why, then, does DFO allow seal hunters to abandon hundreds of thousands of seal corpses on the ice in the middle of the Gulf? Sealers normally remove only the pelts, and leave the seal corpses to rot. This practice, added to unknown numbers of wounded seals that escape to die later, results in a rain of sinking, rotting seal corpses that can only work to further stifle - quite literally - the recovery of cod stocks. Dead seal flesh dumped annually into the waters of the Gulf by sealers likely exceeds 1000 tons, and the ensuing rot can certainly suffocate cod. However, no permits for “at sea disposal” of bulk organic waste appear to have been issued to the sealers, (although the law normally requires permits for the disposal of far smaller quantities of fish waste), and no appropriate “environmental impact assessment” has been done (although, as the agency responsible for enabling the seal hunt, DFO is obliged to do this under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act). What a mess - and to think that this seal hunt has been sold to the public as a “cod stock recovery plan.”

Sealers should face unlawful pollution charges if they abandon seal corpses on the ice or in the water. And, to be safe and to be fair, federal officials should now take the precaution of detaining all sealing vessels in port, and enforcing compliance with the new oil pollution prevention rules, before any of these boats are allowed to enter the Gulf this spring. Sadly, however, it seems it is only the seal hunt protesters, who decry the ecological insanity and the inherent cruelty of the hunt, that risk being charged with any seal hunt-related offence by Canadian law enforcement officials.

What, besides pollution prevention, might help counteract the growing “dead zone” in the Gulf of St. Lawrence? The answer, ironically, is more live seals.

(Photo above, rotting seal corpse left on ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by sealers, reproduced from www.harpseals.org - photo credit IFAW )

See also:

Something is Rotten in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (more on the hypoxia problem)

Advice to Ocean Ecosystem Managers: Trust the Seals, Fear the Microbes...

Nova Scotia Grey Seal Hunt, 2004 (a review of the ecological arguments against all commercial seal hunts)


Many groups are raising protests in an effort to stop the Canadian harp seal hunt in 2005. For more information see:

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society http://www.seashepherd.org

Humane Society of the United States http://www.hsus.org

International Fund for Animal Welfare http://www.ifaw.org

Harpseals.org http://www.harpseals.org

ProtectSeals.org  http://www.protectseals.org

web analytics

Sign My Guestbook Guestbook by GuestWorld View My Guestbook


eXTReMe Tracker

      Home            About          What's New         Article Index        Contact