Members of the Tsawwassen First Nation are teaming up with commercial and sport-fishers on B.C.’s coast to call on the new federal fisheries minister to allow a West Coast seal and sea lion harvest. The group, called the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society, says that growing populations of seals and sea lions endangers future salmon populations.
“If we want to see salmon around for our next generations, we have to go out there and bring that balance to the animal kingdom,” said Thomas Sewid, the director of the newly established society. “To go out, harvest those seals, utilize the whole carcass so the meats are going to markets in Europe and China, the fat is being rendered down for the omega 3s.”
The federal government has banned the cull of seals and sea lions on the West Coast since the 1970s, which still exists on the East Coast. The group is hoping to have a change in policy now that Jonathan Wilkinson, the MP for North Vancouver, is the new fisheries minister.
“I think we are going to see the balance to our oceans and our waters come back in place because of that minister,” said Sewid. “He understands. He has been out sport-fishing. He has seen big fat sea lions tear salmon off his hooks.”
Sea lions are known to be aggressive, not just to animal populations, but towards humans as well. Last May, a sea lion that swam near Steveston Fisherman’s Wharf snagged a little girl by her dress and pulled her into the water. There were multiple Steveston Harbour Authority signs posted at the popular tourist destination warning people not to feed the sea mammals that frequent the area.
But there is some disagreement on how large an effect seals and sea lions actually have on the fish populations.
Scientists at Ocean Wise say their research does not support the idea a harbour seal cull improves the abundance of Chinook salmon in B.C. The scientist describes the fish population as “complex” and that the seal population has recovered from historical culls, and is no longer increasing significantly.
“Studies show only four per cent of the harbour seal diet is salmon. Herring and hake are their primary prey, with hake making up about 40 per cent of their diet,” said a statement from Ocean Wise. “Hake is actually a big salmon smolt predator, so a seal cull could actually have the opposite of its intended effect: by reducing the number of seals, the abundance of hake would likely increase, resulting in decreased salmon numbers overall.”
We also have a healthy and growing population of transient, or Biggs, killer whales, which eat marine mammals like seals and sea lions. So harbour seals are already being culled very effectively without any human interference at all. Reducing the seal population in the Salish Sea would mean a reduction in food for transient killer whales.
Ocean Wise has also found that with an increase in transient killer whales, which eat seals, the population is expected to slowly decline over time.
But Sewid’s group has provided numbers from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans that show a massive population boom that needs to be controlled. According to those numbers, harbour seals in the Georgia Straight have gone up from 12,500 in 1987 to 45,000 today.
As for sea lions, those same numbers from the population grew on B.C.’s coast from 13,000 in 1984 to 36,140 in 1997.
The populations have slowed since the mid-1990s, and has been relatively stable since. One of the challenges Sewid says in convincing people that the animals should be culled is that they look “cute.”
“They don’t understand that seals and sea lions are eating hundreds of salmon fry when the fry are going out to sea, down the rivers and when the salmon are coming home to spawn, those overpopulations over seals and sea lions are eating all that fish,” said Sewid. “We have to bring that balance on.”
— With files from Jill Bennett
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