West coast seal hunt proposed to save salmon

Written By Tom Davis

“There are probably twice as many [pinnipeds] as there have been for the last several thousand years.”

––Carl Walters

The time has come to reconsider limits imposed on west coast seal hunting, according to some Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders and academics.

Allowing seal and sea lion hunting on the west coast would provide economic and cultural benefits to coastal communities and would reduce overabundant pinniped populations that are preying on fragile salmon populations, say advocates. 

But more than convincing the federal Department of Fisheriess and Oceans, seal hunt advocates will have to gain public approval, a battle that will likely be heated and uphill.

When Canadians hear ‘seal hunt’ they probably think of the pitched battles that ensued between east coast sealers and animal rights activists in the 1970s and 1980s. The sealers were following their historic hunting traditions, while animal rights activists viewed the hunt as a brutal symbol of a bygone lifestyle, intolerable in contemporary society. 

The anti-sealers, spurred on by prominent entertainment personalities including Brigitte Bardot, Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson, ultimately won the day by employing a relentlessly effective campaign that marginalized hunting communities in Atlantic and Arctic Canada. 

Those sealers were easy targets once images of bludgeoned baby seals flashed across the nightly news. The campaign eventually destroyed most of the North American and European markets for seal products. 

However there was collateral damage beyond the drama that played out on the ice fields. The loss of seal product markets, and downward pressures on fur sales generally, put the brakes on a traditional Indigenous cultural activity and an important source of income. This was particularly true for northern Canada’s Inuit, one of the poorest Indigenous groups at that time, who relied on the income derived from hunting seals.

Indigenous seal hunters from Nootka Sound traded seal products and fur for land-based products from the Kwakiutl and Coast Salish nations. Nootka Sound seen here in July 2017. [Photo Tom Davis]

According to the University of British Columbia’s Wiki page on Indigenous seal hunting in northern Canada, “for thousands of years indigenous communities relied on seal hunting for sustenance, clothing, tools and trade” and hunting seals “played an important role in preserving ecosystems.”

A University of Western Ontario historical survey of First Nation markets specifically named west coast Vancouver Island tribes from Nootka Sound as “specializing in whaling and sealing for trade” with the Kwakiutl, a nearby coastal First Nation whose territory spanned the mainland inlets and the north-eastern side of Vancouver Island.

Unpacking the pinniped harvest debate

The First Nations’ cultural history of hunting pinnipeds for food, clothing and trade is integral to the current discussions on harvesting seals and sea lions. First Nations can legally take a small number of animals for food, societal and ceremonial purposes, but harvesting on a commercial scale has not been approved for the west coast. 

That limitation needs to change, according to Tom Sewid, a Kwakiutl artist and advocate for First Nations’ economic development.  Sewid is unequivocal that First Nations absolutely have the ancestral right to harvest seals and sea lions for commercial purposes.  

His opinion is supported by other harvest advocates including Ken Pearce, who is not Indigenous and a director of the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society, which Pearce described as “a group dedicated to bringing the pinniped populations on our B.C. coast back into historical balance through a controlled, well-managed harvest over time.”

Pearce sees seal hunting as an opportunity to provide more employment for struggling coastal communities by processing pinnipeds in under-utilized fish plants.

Pearce recommends that harvesting only be done by the most qualified participants and acknowledges First Nations must play a major role.

Pearce and Sewid are now working together in the volunteer-run society. Their outreach strategy includes a March presentation to the federal government’s Standing Committee on Fisheries where they received “overwhelming support” from committee members, according to Pearce.  

Pinniped predation hurting salmon, cull recommended

Matt Stabler, a retired marine biologist and displaced commercial troll fisherman, joined Pearce in addressing the committee.

According to Stabler, the current level of seal and sea lion predation on salmon juveniles and adults is unsustainable. Between 40 and 60 per cent of out-migrating Fraser River Chinook and Coho smolts are consumed by pinnipeds. 

Salmon runs are already under pressure, with some dangerously close to disappearing. If salmon declines of that magnitude continue, they could create significant ecosystem disruption in affected watersheds, says Stabler.

Pinniped harvest advocates are proposing a pilot harvest of approximately 5,000 seals.

This predation level tracks with findings in a 2022 Washington State Academy of Sciences report on pinniped predation on salmonids in Washington State coastal waters, which recommends reducing seal and sea lion numbers to ease pressure on salmon. 

The study suggests “appropriate, scaled management of pinniped populations is a key to resolving uncertainties.” This management “will require lethal removals.” The U.S. has now relaxed Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations to allow for pinniped culls. 

The Pacific Balance Pinniped Society is calling for similar measures in Canadian waters and cites support from 115 First Nations, the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union, the BC Wildlife Federation and 152 Federal MP’s.

Pinniped harvest advocates are proposing a pilot harvest of approximately 5,000 seals, which would include a thorough review of the harvest, along with extensive biological sampling of their diets.

Seal harvest advocates also have some high-profile academic support. 

‘The problem is not new’

Dr. Carl Walters, professor emeritus with the Institute for Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia where he has studied the rise in seal and sea lion populations. 

“There are probably at least twice as many seals and Stellar sea lions on the coast as there have been for the last several thousand years,” Waters said, adding because previously “First Nations peoples hunted them extensively.”

Addressing the same federal Standing Committee on Fisheries last December, Walters said the seal and sea lion population increases since the 1970s have correlated with the escalating mortality of Chinook and Coho salmon in the B.C. south coast, and herring coast wide.

Some salmon are particularly vulnerable on their return trips up river, he said.

“There have been a lot of studies over the years on just how many salmon get eaten by seals and sea lions as the salmon are going into rivers to spawn and where the seals and sea lions congregate to take an easy meal.”

“Sea lions … now consume more fish biomass than all of British Columbia’s commercial fisheries combined.”

Carl Walters

The problem is not new, Walters said, yet the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) consistently ignored seal and sea lion impacts in its policy planning. Walters says he was first alerted to pinniped impacts on salmon through an analysis done by research scientist Peter Olesiuk, who tracked their population levels over a 140-year time span. 

Stellar sea lions how consume about 300,000 tons of fish a year, greater than the catch of all B,C, fisheries combined, according to UBC’s Dr. Carl Walters. [Graph Peter Olesiuk]

Walters supports a 50 per cent reduction in the seal and sea lion populations over a number of years, followed by a sustained harvest to keep their numbers at that level. 

Walters acknowledges that a seal harvest, on its own, may not result in salmon numbers increasing. This is mainly due to significant impacts on salmon stocks from expanding human activities and climate warming. However, he assessed the chances of successful salmon population increases at 50 per cent.

Re-wilding best option, says marine mammal scientist

There are also respected scientific opinions against the hunt like those put forward by Dr. Andrew Trites, who heads up UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit. 

Speaking to the same Standing Committee on Fisheries, Trites estimated the probability of a harvest successfully increasing salmon escapements at only 30 per cent. 

In an interview with Northern Beat, Trites refuted the premise that pinniped populations are still growing at an out-of-control rate. 

The B.C. pinniped populations have made a remarkable recovery over the last 25 years – at approximately 100,000 seals, 45,000 Stellar and 14,000 California sea lions – thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and resulting seal hunting bans, Trites said. 

A large seal and sea lion harvest may have unintended consequences on other species.

The recent levelling of their populations is due to predation by mammal-eating transient killer whales, whose abundance has increased significantly, he added.

Trites is concerned that a large seal and sea lion harvest will have negative consequences for transient killer whales by depleting their primary food source. 

Seals lounge at an unspecified location on the west coast. [Photo Pacific Balance Marine Management]

There are also other unanticipated consequences from over-harvesting seals and sea lions, like a rapid increase in the hake population, he said. Hake are an important pinniped food source, but hake also consume significant numbers of juvenile salmon. 

Trites favors a re-wilding of ecosystems, which means letting them recover as naturally as possible. 

Huge harvest could cause international backlash

Besides, the market for pinniped products is not robust and Canada could face significant international backlash if it approves a harvest of the size envisioned by the proponents. 

Having said that, Trites conceded there may be a need for targeted culls of problem animals in specific river systems, but cautioned comparative studies should first be conducted to see how salmon recover in culled systems versus in nearby systems where culls did not occur.

Based on computer modeling, Trites said it would take an annual harvest of 9,000 to 10,000 animals over 10 years to reduce the population to 50,000 as proposed. 

Non-lethal immuno-contraception is another alternative. It would be prohibitively expensive for the initial harvest, but could be an option to constrain population growth after the population reduction levels have been met, he said.

Current status of commercial harvesting

For now, there is currently no commercial access to pinnipeds on the West Coast, according to DFO Communication Officer Lara Sloan, adding the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “does not authorize commercial fisheries as a tool to control populations.” 

The department considers the ecosystem context when making management decisions, which includes extensive research to understand how mammals fit into their existing environments, Sloan wrote in an emailed response to questions. The level of pinniped predation on salmon is uncertain, she said, noting salmon represent a small component of a pinniped’s overall diet.

Sloan acknowledged that the Fisheries and Oceans department had received initial commercial harvest proposals and is working with proponents to develop their proposals to qualify for technical review. 

“The onus is on the proponents to demonstrate they can undertake the work to establish a new fishery,” Sloan said.

To date, none of the initial requests have been re-submitted, she said.