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POFO - Standing Committee

Fisheries and Oceans


Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on 
Fisheries and Oceans

Issue 2 - Evidence - October 25, 2011

OTTAWA, Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans met this day at 5:10 p.m. to study the management of the grey seal population off Canada's East Coast.

Senator Fabian Manning (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: Good evening, I call the meeting to order. My name is Senator Fabian Manning from Newfoundland and Labrador. I will ask the members of the committee first if they will introduce themselves, and we will start with Senator Cochrane.

Senator Cochrane: I am Senator Cochrane from Newfoundland and Labrador as well.

Senator Hubley: I am Senator Hubley from Prince Edward Island.

Senator Frum: I am Senator Frum from Ontario.

Senator Baker: I am Senator Baker from Newfoundland and Labrador as well.

Senator Harb: I am Senator Harb from Ontario. I am not a member of this committee, but I am attending the meeting.

The Chair: We will be having other senators joining us shortly, I believe.

This is the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. Today we begin our study on the management of the grey seal population off Canada's East Coast.

As today is our first meeting, we have invited some officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to give us information on the status of the grey seal population at the present time. Thank you for taking the time to join us. If you would be so kind, please introduce yourselves and then we will start the process.

David Balfour, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Ecosystems and Fisheries Management, Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Thank you, Mr. Chair, it is a pleasure for us to be here this evening. I am David Balfour, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister of Ecosystems and Fisheries Management with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. With me are my colleagues, Siddika Mithani, Assistant Deputy Minister, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector; and Patrice Simon, Director, Environment and Biodiversity Science with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Chair: We are just joined by another senator; would you introduce yourself?

Senator MacDonald: I am Senator MacDonald from Nova Scotia.

The Chair: My understanding, Mr. Balfour, is you have some opening remarks or a presentation you would like to make and then we will invite some questions from the senators. You can start your presentation now.

Mr. Balfour: By way of introduction, we have a presentation this evening on grey seals in Atlantic Canada. We will touch on the implications arising from the grey seal population for cod recovery — in particular, the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence cod stock.

We will begin first with Ms. Mithani, who will provide an overview on the science on grey seals and report on the peer-reviewed science work that has been completed on the relationship of grey seals' predation to rebuilding cod stocks. I will offer some highlights on the state of the commercial grey seal hunt — a little bit on the market outlook — and conclude with some comments about future considerations.

Siddika Mithani, Assistant Deputy Minister, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector, Fisheries and Oceans Canada: I would like to thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to come here and speak about some of these issues. As Mr. Balfour mentioned, we are looking at the grey seal issue more from a perspective with respect to cod recovery; therefore, our science has focused on looking at grey seals and their role as predators of groundfish to better understand the role of grey seals in the ecosystem.

Before I get into my slides, one other piece of context is that although today's conversation is about grey seals, it is important to note that there are six species of seals in Canada. They are the grey seals, hooded seals, harp seals, ring seals, harbour seals and bearded seals. In Atlantic Canada, we mainly have grey seals, together with hooded seals and harp seals.

When we look at the grey seal herd locations, there are three Canadian herds. The largest one is Sable Island. There is a herd of 55,000 to 70,000 animals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. On Sable Island there are 300,000 animals, and the coastal Nova Scotia herd is around 20,000 animals. Grey seals are also found in Europe, but their population is much smaller.

Slide 3 gives you a brief shot of grey seal population trends in the last 40 years. It is important to note that very little is known about the historical abundance of grey seals. We have values from about 1960 or 1970. The current population size is the largest we have ever observed systematically. It is also important to note — and it is of significance — that the population is increasing. However, population growth rates have slowed in recent years. From the models we use in science — when we estimate the average annual rates of population increase — the rate of increase was 12 per cent in the 1980s. It was 9 per cent in the 1990s and 6 per cent in the 2000s. What we are looking at now is a slow down, but it is still 4 per cent. It gives you a trend. The population is increasing, however the rate of increase has slowed down a little.

To give it another bit of context, in the 1960s we had about 10,000 seals. In the 1970s we were looking at 30,000 seals. In 2010-11 we are looking at 400,000 seals.

I want to talk a bit about the science program at DFO. Before I get into the science being done in the department, it is important to remember that the ecosystem is a very complex one. There are interactions at various functional levels between a large number of groups of organisms. Determining the cause and effect relationships between two populations is challenging because there is an inherent complexity in trying to untangle the effects of the multiple stressors you see in an ecosystem. Although we do not understand all of the interactions of the ecosystems, our science program has provided valuable insight in recent years. We are able to provide some recommendations from science to resource management.

Our grey seal research program at DFO has three elements. The first is population dynamics. What I mean by population dynamics is assessing the population of grey seals. We do visual surveys every three years and we look at reproductive rates that we estimate based on models. Based on that, we can say there are about 400,000 seals in 2010-11. The photograph depicts some of the visual surveys that we do and the counting that is done in order to ascertain the population of grey seals.

The second element of the science is the diet. DFO has done a significant amount of work in studying seal diets. We do an analysis of the feces, stomach content and fatty acids. From these studies we have ascertained that the grey seal diet is varied. It generally consists of fish, including sand lance, cod, herring, skate and other small aquatic organisms. An example of the information we have from the diet studies is that cod represents anywhere between 1 and 24 per cent of the grey seal diet. That is an important number to remember.

The third element we look at in the science program is the distribution, migration and overlap with prey species. To understand where grey seals are feeding we do an aggregation study, some satellite tagging to look at where seals aggregate, where the cod aggregates, and do the overlap. We do some of the studying there, and it provides us with an understanding of what the grey seal role is in the ecosystem.

As a result of these studies, there have been certain conclusions reached and concerns identified with respect to the negative impacts of the growing seal population on ground fish. Cod stocks are basically at low levels and show limited signs of recovery.

As I mentioned earlier, cod are an important part of the grey seal diet, so it is critical to understand the relationship between grey seals and cod. The cod stocks in the northern gulf, southern gulf, the Scotian shelf and the western Scotian shelf have decreased significantly over the last few decades. The cod stocks are so low they have been assessed by COSEWIC as being endangered.

On the other hand, grey seals are at an all-time high and continue to grow. There is also the issue that there are seal worms. The seal worm content in cod is also increasing, which is an added issue as far as this interaction goes.

In order to look at the findings of the studies we have done, we conducted an evaluation — a zonal advisory process — where we conducted a large review of all the data that was available on the cod/seal interaction.

The zonal advisory process is all about getting experts together. In this case, we had 57 Canadian and international experts around the table for a five-day meeting, deliberating on the results and the findings from 31 documents that were reviewed within this particular zonal advisory.

Some of the documents that were reviewed were on topics such as grey seal pup production, diet, population estimates, fish population trends and distribution and geographical overlap of grey seal feeding areas and cod distribution. This group deliberated over five days and came up with science recommendations for the department.

The science advice on the effects of grey seal on cod was as follows: For the eastern Scotian shelf, seal predation contributed to increased mortality in cod, but the magnitude of this impact relative to that of other sources remains unknown. With respect to the remaining Scotian Shelf, comparable information was not available for the mortality inflicted by grey seals on cod in these regions. In the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, predation by grey seals was found to be the greatest contributor to the increased mortality in large southern gulf cod. Those were some of the conclusions of the zonal advisory process.

Science was at the time asked if the recovery of cod would be positively impacted by lowering the grey seal predation. Based on this, it was concluded that only for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a decrease in grey seal population would likely decrease cod mortality and therefore assist in cod stock recovery. This is the conclusion that the zonal advisory process came up with.

I will pass it over to Mr. Balfour to talk about management.

Mr. Balfour: As has been mentioned earlier, the current population of grey seals is estimated at approximately 400,000 animals. This has increased from a population of 30,000 in the 1970s. For 2011, a total allowable harvest of grey seals was established at 60,000 animals, of which 200 grey seals were harvested commercially in the Cape Breton area last winter. There are a relatively small number of commercial harvesters of grey seals. That is as much a reflection of the market opportunity that is presented to them. There were 49 professional harvesters in our gulf region, which comprises the gulf side of Cape Breton, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and 130 in our maritime regions in Nova Scotia. These are individuals that have been trained as professional harvesters of grey seals out of a total of 14,000 professional seal harvesters, the majority of which are historically targeting the harvest of harp seals.

The last significant commercial harvest was in 2008 on Hay Island in Cape Breton, where approximately 1,200 grey seals were taken over three days. However, it is fair to say that there has been a very modest harvest of grey seals due to the market interest historically.

With respect to the grey seal market, commercial interest has been primarily for pelts and blubber from juvenile seals in the past. The absence of a market and few areas of accessible seal concentrations have kept the grey seal hunt at minimum levels. The market situation remains a major constraint to a viable commercial harvest.

The harvest that does occur has had a low commercial value. In the last year, harp seal pelts were valued at approximately $20. Historically, grey seal pelts are of lesser value than that in terms of prices paid to harvesters.

The department is working with provinces to encourage investment in the area of product and market development. The role of the department with respect to those efforts is very much that of the regulator of the harvest, as well as facilitating projects to create product opportunities and markets.

That included last January 2011, where a cooperation agreement was initialled with the government of China, with the prospect of importing meat and oil products. That is still under review by China, but that does potentially hold some promise for market development for commercial harvesters.

There has also been a federal-provincial working group that has been established under the auspices of the Atlantic Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers to coordinate efforts between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and provinces respecting seal product development in markets. That working group is currently focusing on a research and development strategy for product innovation.

The department's role with respect to the harvest of seals is, first and foremost, to monitor the harvest to ensure that it is sustainable, humane, orderly and well managed; to enforce the regulations and reporting on the harvest — that is the primary role of our fisheries officers; and to ensure that the three-step process is utilized fully and effectively during the harvest.

This is a process of stunning seals, either by striking them or shooting them, checking for palpitations and ensuring that the cranium has been crushed. Then there the carotid artery is cut and the seals are bled before processing them.

The department also is involved in engagement with seal harvesters with respect to the development of integrated harvest management plans for seals, both at the regional level and on an Atlantic-wide basis. That would be an integrated plan that would cover the three species that Ms. Mithani had mentioned in terms of grey, harp and hooded seals.

As well, under this plan, we implement management measures such as the total allowable harvest for each of the species, closed areas where appropriate, and opening and closing dates. For example, for grey seals, the season is open from the end of February through to the end of December annually. It is closed during the birthing season.

In terms of some further considerations, as has been noted, last winter peer-review science was carried out regarding grey seal predation on cod in the southern gulf. It led to recommendations involving the targeted removal of 70,000 seals over five years. There have also been recommendations that were included in the most recent Fisheries Resource Conservation Council report that was published in September, which called for a reduction of 70,000 grey seals. Last week, the house SCOFO committee in their crab report also recommended measures to reduce grey seal populations.

In terms of looking forward on the possibility of removing such a number of seals, it is worth noting that the department has not in the past had experience in carrying out such an endeavour; this would be entirely new. We would need to develop the capacity and the techniques to be able to harvest significant numbers of seals.

We also would need to be able to conduct such measures so that the removal of seals was targeted at those seals that were predating on cod, since the purpose of this effort would be to allow the cod in the southern gulf to be able to break free of the predation and maybe overcome the barriers to rebuilding which predation by grey seals currently exposes them to. We would need to ensure that what would be done in terms of a reduction would be done humanely. It would have to respect international standards for culling marine animals and would require the likely use of professional seal harvesters who are expert in killing seals.

If a program of this sort was to be carried out, it would need to be well supervised, orderly and monitored. There would be the need to be able to do the follow-up science work in conjunction with such a measure to ensure that we had a way to determine and report that the removal of the grey seals made a difference in terms of the recovery of cod. That would be its purpose and we would need to be able to determine whether that was being served.

In doing anything in this area, we would need to seek out the collaboration of the fish harvester organizations, fish harvesters and provinces to be able to carry out an endeavour of this sort on a comprehensive basis. As well, the department would continue to work with the sealing industry to cooperate with them on any opportunities that they would see in developing seal markets or seal products in order that there would be the opportunity to establish a sustainable seal hunt that would provide commercial benefits.

Mr. Chair, we would conclude at this point and respond to any questions that you may have for us.

The Chair: Thank you for your presentations. There is some great information there, and we look forward to some questions.

Before we get into questions, could you make a comment on the status of Sable Island? I realize it has been put forward as a national park reserve; what impact would that have? It is also my understanding that the greatest population of grey seals is possibly in that area.

Mr. Balfour: The creation of Sable Island as a national park is proceeding through a series of steps. What it would mean for the harvest of grey seals is that as a park, the commercial harvest on the island would no longer be permitted. However, it is our understanding that if we were to carry out a reduction effort on grey seals, if we were targeting on the Sable Island population, that would be permissible in the park.

The Chair: I am sure we will be discussing that in the future.

Senator Hubley: Regarding the targeted reduction you spoke of, which was 70,000 over five years, what percentage of the herd would that be?

Mr. Balfour: The herd is estimated at 400,000 animals, so that would be 70,000 animals over five years. However, as was pointed out, there is still a natural increase in the size of the herd. I do not know if we have a calculation in terms of how that factors out. It is the view that 70,000 animals being removed would be at a level that would give the cod the opportunity to have a break from the heavy predation. As I understand it, the predation is on larger cod, so these cod would have the opportunity of spawning.

Ms. Mithani: It is important to note that we are talking about only the southern gulf. It is exactly that area, rather than everywhere. We are talking about 70,000 in the area of the southern gulf, where clearly the science data has shown that overlap. It is also shown that in the southern gulf, the grey seal diet is up to 25 per cent cod. As well, southern gulf grey seals prefer larger cod, which brings everything together. That is how, by deduction, the conclusion was made by the zonal advisory process.

Senator Hubley: The crux of the question is will the 70,000 — the targeted reduction over five years — in fact make the difference that we require?

Ms. Mithani: We had 57 experts. We reviewed all the data. Science is always uncertain. However, based on the data, the scientific estimate from those deliberations was that 70,000 over five years in the southern gulf would be the area where it would assist in cod recovery. As Mr. Balfour said, this is a question of being able to monitor appropriately during those five years and make any modifications as scientific data becomes available.

Senator Hubley: Is the targeted reduction a cull? Do you use that terminology anymore?

Ms. Mithani: We have talked about removal.

Patrice Simon, Director, Environment and Biodiversity Science, Fisheries and Oceans Canada: The action of removing 70,000 seals will not lead to a decrease of the overall population of grey seals. Usually, culls are made to decrease an entire population. What is proposed now is a very selective action in some areas. We have been calling it a targeted population reduction in specific areas where we believe it could make a difference for cod survival.

Senator Cochrane: My question is also related to the grey seal. On page 11 of your brief, you mention how DFO is working with provinces to encourage investments in the areas of product and market development. Could you update us on your discussions with the provinces?

Mr. Balfour: At the last meeting of the Atlantic Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers in Iqaluit in September, we established and confirmed that we would come together to create a cooperative committee of federal and provincial officials. This is to work with industry about the elaboration of plans for product innovation and market access. As I mentioned, there is work that is being carried out on a strategy. The strategy would be for more than just grey seal. It would also include harp seal, and opportunities to access market and to innovate with product. The department was involved last year, along with the province of Nova Scotia, on a project with the Northeast Coast Sealers Cooperative in Newfoundland. It was on the heart of some grey seals in Cape Breton that were then used for testing and sampling for quality of meat for human consumption, and the development of oil products. This cooperative has developed samples and is looking for opportunities to promote into various markets.

It has been about responding to interests on the part of industry and seeing how we could facilitate working collaboratively with provinces — those that have a role in fish and seafood product development and market promotion — to support growing market opportunity for seal products.

Senator Cochrane: Those discussions are ongoing and there has not been anything final coming from it?

Mr. Balfour: Yes, those discussions on ongoing.

Senator Cochrane: Do they agree with the 70,000 grey seals that will be removed?

Mr. Balfour: We have not had discussions with the province about their view on the removal of 70,000 seals. At this point we are not at the stage of elaborating a program response to carry out a removal or reduction. However, if we were to proceed with that, it would be our view that we would need to do that in a cooperative way with the provinces. We would seek their involvement in the design and delivery of such a program — working cooperatively with them in engaging with sealer organizations and fish harvester organizations — so that they would be able to play a role in the execution of such a program.

Senator Cochrane: You do not see anything final in regards to this seal harvest time for the winter of this year?

Mr. Balfour: Not at this time.

Senator Harb: As you know, I tried on a number of occasions to introduce a bill in the Senate and was not able to speak. I want to thank the committee for their brave position in allowing me to express my views and ask a few questions.

It is not a secret where I stand on the issue of seals and the seal hunt. From what you said, Ms. Mithani, the grey seal diet is complex. That is interesting. In fact, they eat a number of things, and one of them is herring. Do grey seals eat the predators of the cod stock or the fish stock?

Mr. Simon: As Ms. Mithani said, it is a very complex ecosystem. Seal will eat some herring, and herring are known to eat cod eggs. That was evaluated when we looked at the advice. Despite this, and despite the fact that if we go ahead with a population reduction, we consider the side effects that may happen. There is still the belief that the effort could lead to a decrease of cod mortality that would lead to a recovery.

What we conclude in our science assessment is that the mortality of cod, especially in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, if it stays as high as it is, the cod will — the stock will disappear. What we conclude as well is that the major reason for this high mortality is seal predation.

Senator Harb: An important point is that when the department invited those experts, they invited them with the understanding that they were looking at the negative impact of grey seals on cod. Has the department looked at the positive impact of seals on cod? Should the department look at that as an option, or should the committee, for example, invite some witnesses who might tell them about the positive impact of grey seals on cod?

Before I conclude, the United Nations Environment Programme protocol for the scientific evaluation of proposals to cull marine mammals is in place. Has the department done, or do they plan on doing, the proper scientific analysis as outlined by the United Nations before proceeding with any decision to cull any grey seals?

Mr. Simon: With respect to the invitees for this science advisory process that took place, we took great care to invite people with various expertises coming from various backgrounds. We did have a lot of seal experts — from Canada, from academia and internationally. We had people from various fishing industries and people that are more on the ground. We also had people from ENGOs, which often come with a different perspective to this issue.

I was at the meeting and it was a balance. There was some lively discussion and people had the opportunity to express their views and present their information. At the end, looking at the evidence that was presented, the conclusion was reached with this balanced participation.

Regarding your second point, you are correct that UNEP has a process to follow for people considering a population reduction of marine mammals. In the science advice that was provided, we indicated that should such an action take place, it would be important to have a monitoring process in place to look at the effectiveness of the action.

The UNEP protocol basically says three things: First, look to see if your actions have the desired effects, so let us monitor the cod population; second, let us monitor so that your actions do not put a species at risk, in this case the grey seal; and third, have in place a monitoring system that can tell you about other effects that may happen.

Senator Harb: Senator Baker asked a very important question during the last meeting of the committee about the 200-mile limit and whether or not what was depleting the stock was the overfishing by 24 countries. I looked in the minutes and no one seemed to have answered Senator Baker's point about the overfishing by the international community at the 200-mile limit.

It strikes me as what we are doing here is taking the easy way. We are killing the grey seals, not for their meat, not for their fur, but because we think — we are not sure — that it might solve the problem.

I think the department may have thought of this, but has the minister thought of the horrendous impact that the killing will have on Canada's international reputation and the embarrassment that it will cause Canada on the international scene? That is something that I believe this committee and this government should consider very seriously before they make a decision based not on scientific credentials and evidence, but based on opinion that was biased, unsubstantiated and politically motivated just to respond to the political position of the minister. These people who came to this workshop were not people who were there to give an objective opinion.

The Chair: Get to your question.

Senator Harb: The question is this: Has the minister thought about the horrendous damage it will cause Canada's reputation in the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of grey seals unnecessarily and unfairly?

Mr. Balfour: I will start and then turn to my colleagues to add to this.

First, we have been clear that a removal of grey seals would target the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. That is a cod stock that has been closed since 2009 and is currently subject to a moratorium.

We have taken every measure we can, where we are now completely eliminating all fishing mortality. However, as has been set out here this evening, we are still on a track with grey seal predation where we are on the road to seeing the extirpation of that resource.

The cod stock in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence is also a stock that is fully fished by Canadians; it always has been since the extension of the EEZ. We are doing everything we can in terms of a moratorium and ensuring that we minimize bycatch of this stock. However, we are seeing a situation where in the absence of further action, we will not see the rebuilding of the cod stock. That will mean that all of the communities that have depended historically on that resource for their livelihoods will have no prospect of seeing the possibility of the stock rebuilding and being able to resume fishing and have the opportunity of processing the resource in their communities in the future.

Ms. Mithani: We had an independent scientific process that truly withstands all kinds of scrutiny. There were people there that were international experts as well. This has been scientific advice that has been given, which is independent and objective.


Senator Hervieux-Payette: First of all, I would like some general information: how big are adult grey seals? How long do they live? And what are their predators? Because any animal, normally, has a predator ensuring balanced growth that doesn't go beyond the limits of the space or the ecosystem.

After I get this information, I will have some other questions, but I think we really have to establish the life span of these animals and the size of an adult seal. We are very touched when we see baby seals but, when they are grown up, they look a lot less like pets.

Finally I would like to know what risk they run when they eat fish that's been contaminated by a parasite? Because a health problem from contamination might prevent seal meat from being marketed.

I would like to have these basic data because, if we want to have an intelligent discussion, we have to know the composition of this population.

Mr. Simon: I can answer your questions. The male grey seal can weigh about 300 kilos and the female about 200 kilos. They live from 30 to 40 years, though this can vary a lot. They do not have many predators. In the past, there were killer whales, which are no longer very abundant in Eastern Canada. There are also different types of shark, which are not very numerous either. So grey seal predators are fairly limited.

As regards parasites, this problem mainly affects cod. We do not think they have a negative effect on the health of the cod, but it's a parasite that is found in the cod's flesh. It is mainly significant when it comes time to cut fillets and so on; it is not a product that sells well. Processing costs are increased.

Senator Hervieux-Payette: But for the seal concerned, does this spoil its dietary properties? Because when we talk about 300 kilos, we are talking about an animal that weighs 600 pounds; that is bigger than a cow. I have seen small seals in Nunavut, which do not amount to very many meals of meat. But if we take the flesh of an adult seal to feed other animals, would this meat be contaminated?

Mr. Simon: In terms of parasites, this is mostly an intestinal parasite that has only one life cycle within the seal. It does not harm the meat.

In terms of contamination, according to the studies I have read, there's not a high level of contamination. But I think work is still being done on this to find out about contamination in different age groups and in seals from various places.


Mr. Balfour: To add briefly, the seal worm in cod is not a food safety issue. It is an aesthetic issue. It means that in order to sell fish — as part of the processing with additional labour — it is required they candle the cod fillets to be able to identify the worm in the fillet. Then they physically remove the portion of the fillet with the worm, and that reduces the weight available for sale.

It is a concern from a commercial and value standpoint. It is prices paid to fishermen and prices that processers and marketers can obtain for cod product that has this parasite.

In some of the work carried out under projects that have had some involvement with the department — like the project that I referred to in my remarks that occurred last winter in Cape Breton — samples of meat were taken. It has been tested in labs, confirmed as not carrying any contaminants or heavy metals, and that they are fit for human consumption. That has been a critical step for the industry to go through in order to be able to promote the sale of that product into markets.


Senator Hervieux-Payette: I would like one last question. I think that we have a harmonious natural resource making it possible to continue preserving all species, not just one species. Because, if we just have seals, one day we may no longer have enough fish to feed them. So we have to maintain a certain balance among the various animal species.

In Quebec, we have a place called Anticosti Island, where deer-hunting is allowed in order to control the population scientifically, because the space can feed only a certain number of deer. There are fixed quotas. I see an analogy here between the two populations.

What interests me is the maximum use of the product once 70,000 seals have been killed. That is not a lot annually. And if we do not look at the products that can be derived from them, the market is far less interesting. Here we are talking about the skin for fur, the fat.

I would like to know whether there is the same percentage of fat because this can be very high in seals. The grey seal has a huge amount of fat that provides omega-3 oils and meat that could be used as animal feed. Is there someone in your department or another department who is interested in making optimum use from the slaughter of these seals so as to both control the population and at the same time make good use of the ones that are slaughtered?


Mr. Balfour: It would be highly desirable if a market were available to allow for a hunt to occur. In terms of looking for opportunity, this is an area we have been endeavouring to work with provinces and other federal partners on. That has been a real challenge faced by the industry.

The total allowable harvest of 60,000 animals that is currently available would permit a continued sustainable level of population and probably an increase of population. What is being looked at here in terms of cod in the southern gulf — if one was to take up the advice from science — would be a targeted removal. The cod would get a break and possibly be able to break out of the sink that they are currently in. They may also be able to have the ability to reproduce at a rate where — if we went back to a normal kind of posture — they would be able to withstand the predation by grey seals and rebuild as a resource. I think that is the focus of this advice, as opposed to the opportunity of commercializing grey seals. That is something that will continue at the same time as a priority. It would also be important to see a resource that is sustainable, that can be harvested humanely and responsibly, and that can be utilized to provide economic benefits to coastal communities.

Senator Patterson: Mr. Chair, as you know, I represent the Nunavut territory in the Senate. One of my concerns about any discussions of seals in this country is that those who participate are often driven by emotion and extreme rhetoric of the animal rights movement. Setting aside science — and we saw an example of that tonight at this committee — I could get very emotional about the damage done to the spirit and pride of the Inuit people who have depended on the seal for their very survival, food and clothing. However, I will not be driven or provoked to going down that path.

I would like to thank the witnesses and welcome them. First, can you describe this animal and the size? I know it is perhaps a difficult question to answer definitively, but what kind of weight would one of these creatures consume in a day? Is that possible to estimate?

Mr. Simon: Yes. I can tell you that the size is much larger than the ring seal. An adult male weighs about 300 kilograms. They are big animals. They live for about 30 to 40 years. They start to reproduce at about five years of age.

What they eat varies quite a bit with the age of the animal. The estimate is about five kilograms of fish a day. It comes to about one or two tonnes per seal, per year. Those are very crude estimates. If they eat food with higher energy content, they have to eat less of it, and then the reverse is true. We were asked for these amounts, but I put them out here with a wide confidence interval around them because it varies a great deal.

Senator Patterson: I understood from Mr. Balfour that the issue of saving our cod stocks — particularly in the gulf, where fishing is not allowed — has been examined already by the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, and I believe you spoke of a house committee with an acronym. Could you expand on that, and what they recommended?

Mr. Balfour: The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, which is an industry based entity that was established to examine conservation and sustainability questions and provide advice to the minister, was asked to bring forward advice on approaches to secure rebuilding of groundfish, with a particular emphasis on cod. They had carried out their reviews and consultations and produced a report in September. I think they had taken into account the results of the peer-reviewed science that was discussed here earlier this evening, which made recommendations for the removal of 70,000 grey seals over five years. They included that and brought that forward as part of the recommendations that they put out in their report.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans last week promulgated its work on snow crab. As part of the report, they also included a similar recommendation to see a removal of 70,000 grey seals.

Senator Patterson: There was a UN body mentioned tonight, UNEP. Is Canada involved with that organization, and do they tell us how we should manage our fishery? Could I have some background on that organization, please?

Mr. Simon: I have limited background on UNEP and Canada's role within it. It was mentioned here because one of the documents that UNEP prepared was to provide guidelines to countries or jurisdictions that may wish to implement a population reduction or a cull. They convened a group of experts that review the management option of culling — when it should be done, how it should be done and what type of monitoring should be put in place, if someone decides to do it.

They do not supervise people doing it; they just produce a guideline that various countries may wish to consider if they decide to implement such a management action.

Senator Patterson: What does it stand for?

Mr. Simon: United Nations Environment Programme.

Senator Frum: Are there other European countries that have these kinds of programs in place?

Mr. Simon: Marine animal culls were implemented in various parts of the world over the last many decades. The monitoring program they put in place to determine whether or not it was successful was mixed. It is difficult to look at the place, especially on marine mammals — that we can just look and say this is an example we want to follow.

Population reduction programs were implemented on terrestrial populations, and there are some good examples out there where it achieved its objectives. What the UNEP did was to look at the available information and provide guidelines on what was known. One of them is the monitoring. If someone decides to invest time and resources into doing this, it is important to monitor whether or not you achieve your desired objectives.

Senator Frum: Are there other countries with large grey seal populations in particular?

Mr. Simon: Not in terms of the grey seal. Seals are harvested, Canada is an important one, but most of the Scandinavian countries harvest seals as well. Namibia has fur seals and they have a harvest of about 70,000 animals per year. I am not an expert on the Namibian harvest. Some people have called it a cull, but I know they are trying to use a product too, because I see they also are trying to develop pelt and oil products out of their harvest.

Senator Frum: How do we account for this explosion in population? Is it because we used to have culls in the past and stopped doing it? Why are there so many seals?

Mr. Simon: We do not understand it fully but two reasons were brought forward. One was the end of hunting; there used to be various bounty programs on grey seals. The other one is the improved habitat for them. The ice pattern we find now in the gulf and on Sable Island is a great habitat for them. We believe these two things together contribute to the high population increase but there may be other factors we have not fully described yet.

Senator Frum: Mr. Balfour, you mentioned the marketing efforts in China. What organization or group of people would be leading those efforts and how does that work?

Mr. Balfour: That would be work that would be led by Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It would be a collaboration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, DFO and sealer organizations themselves to be able to then, on the basis of this protocol, see the import of seal products into China that would meet Chinese standards of safety for human consumption.

Senator Frum: That must be tough.

Senator MacDonald: I want to preface my remarks by saying that when it comes to wildlife in general, I find this a very difficult topic. I am an animal lover. I do not like to see any animal killed. On the other hand, I do not hunt but I like venison, and there are some realities in life.

One of them is when it comes to marine life, we have to be very careful with it. If you look at the history of marine life on the East Coast of Canada, it is hard to believe today, but the walruses used to be native to Cape Breton. It was a breeding ground for them 300 or 400 years ago. They have been extirpated in Atlantic Canada and now are confined to the eastern Arctic archipelago.

You can go to the Great Auk. There are so many instances where the ridiculous destruction of animals has led us to the point where we lose the animals. There is great pressure on marine animals all over the world today.

However, when it comes to seals, not only the grey seal, but the harp seal population has exploded on the East Coast up toward the Arctic. There is now somewhere between 9, 11, 12 million harp seals. Why are seals, not just the grey seal, in general exploding in population when there is so much pressure on other animals, whether it is whales or others? Why is all the pressure downward on them, when there seems to be so much growth in the seal populations? It must be more than just ice and a few other things.

Mr. Simon: There are many unknowns about why they are increasing so quickly, but we know that both populations' growth rates, the harp seal and also the grey seal, has started to slow down. It seems they may be stabilizing, whether at this level or it may go down. It is difficult to know. Sometimes wildlife populations reach a very high level and they go very fast. We saw that with caribou in Northern Quebec; they increase quickly and then they go down to a low level.

There are many things we do not fully understand. We have been following these populations for 30 years, or 50 years even that we have information on them, but we only see one side of the equation. I think for some of these populations we need very long monitoring programs on them to start to understand what influences their growth, but also what influences maybe their decline at some point as well.

Senator MacDonald: In regard to the total allowable catches and the landings, there is quite a discrepancy between the allowable and what is coming in. In 2010 seven grey seals were harvested. I know fishermen at home who shoot that many in one day because they are tearing up all their nets and are around their boats. Why are there so few culls? Why is there so little response to the TACs?

Mr. Balfour: It is because the market does not have an interest in these animals, and as a consequence there is no reward to the harvesters.

Senator MacDonald: Do we need a bounty? Have we ever had one?

Mr. Balfour: There have been bounties in the past, but that is another variation of population control.

Senator MacDonald: You say there have been bounties in the past though?

Mr. Balfour: In the distant past.

Senator MacDonald: With the lack of a market, it would appear the only way to reduce these levels would be to put a bounty on it, would it not?

Mr. Balfour: A bounty, or you could, as is suggested by the science, do a targeted removal of animals that would allow for a rebuilding of the southern gulf cod stock where there is clear scientific evidence that there is a causal relationship between seal predation and the state of that stock.

It is not the same situation as was laid out in the presentation with respect to the cod stocks on the Scotian Shelf. We are not in a position of having the same scientific evidence that would inform any programmatic approach to reducing the size of the herds. Besides that, as I had said earlier, we would endeavour and we want to encourage and work with seal harvesters, commercial harvesters, to develop products that respond to market interest and to develop markets in order that that outlook would be available to utilize the resource that is there and to create a contribution to incomes of professional harvesters and their communities.

Senator MacDonald: It would appear that if something is not done the cod stock along the coast is going to disappear. What sort of a timetable are we looking at? If these seals wipe out the cod stocks, what do they wipe out after that? Where do they go next? They have to eat. Do they go after lobster, herring, mackerel or pollock?

Ms. Mithani: White hake and winter skate.

Mr. Simon: They have a very diverse diet. If cod are less abundant, it is easy for seals to move to something else.

Along with the negative impact that grey seals have in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence on cod, there are other two species at risk, white hake and winter skate. We have studied this less, but there is indication that the mortality imposed by grey seal on these species is sufficient to keep them at a low level and may contribute to their further decline.

It is a complex situation, but despite this complexity not everywhere in Atlantic Canada, but in the southern gulf, and not for every species, because there was some effort on the role of the harp seal, and in other areas the role of the hooded seal. The complexity and the science was not ever able to reach such a conclusion as the one we reached in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence where it was clear enough that the group felt they could provide the science advice they did.

Senator MacDonald: I guess there will be more questions in the future. Thank you.

Senator Oliver: I received an email this afternoon from Sheryl Fink for the International Fund for Animal Welfare about the study of the management of the grey seal population off Canada's East Coast. Among other things, the email says the following: "The cull is being recommended based on the assumption that the removal of grey seals will assist in the recovery of cod stocks. Such a cull involving hundreds of thousands of animals will undoubtedly be inhumane and, contrary to what the report claims, is not supported by any available science." Could you comment on the phrases "will undoubtedly be inhumane," and "not supported by any available science"?

My second question relates to the fact that you told us a grey seal weighs 300 kilos, lives 30 to 40 years, reproduces after 5 years and eats 5 kilos of fish a day. How long is it before a cod can reproduce? One, two, three, four years, before they can reproduce? Are the seals eating young cod before they can reproduce, or are they just waiting for the adults that are bigger?

My third question is this: In your report when you spoke of future considerations, you said DFO is open to facilitate alternative arrangements which would support the development of an economically prosperous grey seal harvest. This would be of what form, what type, and the sale of what types of products?

Mr. Simon: Ms. Fink from IFAW has shared similar views with the department many times as well. I want to note that at the science review process there were two people from the same organization, which was IFAW, who participated. One of them was their science adviser. They are part of the broad group that participates and voices their concerns, but agreed with the final conclusion.

In terms of the humaneness of the hunt, there is regulation called the three-step process to which Mr. Balfour referred. This way of killing animals and dealing with killing them was reviewed by a group of veterinarians, and this group was also well balanced, with Europeans and Americans. They also concluded that, if done properly, and according to the regulation, it is a very humane way of killing animals.

In terms of the fact that it is not supported by science, I think it is a complex environment out there. To be able to give advice with 100 per cent certainty, we do not live in that world. We talked about the process that took place: the review of 31 different research documents, having more than 50 international experts in the room, they debate these results back and forth. The conclusion that they reach, that is what we call the science advice. It is scientific, peer-reviewed advice that followed an agreed-upon process at Fisheries and Oceans in order to provide such advice.

More specifically about the cod, I am less of a cod expert, but they would start to reproduce at about five years old. The seal will eat all age classes. In some areas they will focus on the juvenile. Areas that we are really concerned about are areas where they will target adult reproductive animals. That is where they have the greatest impact, by removing these animals important for the productivity of the cod.

Senator Oliver: Would not the same be true if they ate all the little ones before five years, before they could ever reproduce at all?

Mr. Simon: It is important but not equally important because animals that reproduce are more important to the growth of the population than the juvenile ones. Not all juveniles will necessarily survive to become adults, but once we have a reproductive animal, those are the most precious, if you want to say it that way, to the productivity of the cod stock.

Mr. Balfour: To be clear, in terms of the reference to hundreds of thousands of animals that has been recommended by science, with respect to the southern gulf it is 70,000 animals over five years.

If we were to proceed with a program of reduction, it would be of critical importance to ensure that the removal of the seals was done in a humane manner using the three-step process, which has also been peer reviewed by an international group of veterinarians that have confirmed that it is a humane method for the killing of seals.

We would also want to ensure that those involved operated within a professional standard, and that we were able to conduct this activity in a very orderly and closely monitored manner to ensure that we were able to comply with international standards. It would obviously be important for us to be able to demonstrate that we proceeded in a very responsible and considered manner.

With respect to the development of grey seal product, they would, generally speaking, take the form of pelt, which is a traditional product form, meat or oil. Seals are rich in omega acid oils and they do hold great promise for being able to provide that kind of nutrient. There has been some work done by a Quebec-based interest in looking at things like the use of seal heart valves as a replacement for human heart valves, as an alternative to swine heart valves. Work is being conducted in that area too.

There is activity, but it is about finding a market, informing that market in terms of the quality of the product, and developing the market. That is not an overnight situation and it does present a challenge.

Senator Baker: As Senator Patterson has said, he is from an area similar to mine. I represent the northeast coast of Newfoundland from where all of the sealers who conduct the hunt regularly originate. There are a few of us on Parliament Hill, although not very many, who have lived with seal meat as a regular part of our diet. We know, as Senator Patterson knows, how nutritious seal meat is and the effects it has on people. We also know of the recent development of what is called the antifreeze protein found in the blood of deep-water fish that is now used to sustain organ transplants for human beings. It lengthens the time period that the organs can remain viable before being transplanted.

I am surprised to see Dr. Mithani here this evening because she is an internationally recognized and respected psychopharmacological expert.

Ms. Mithani: Yes.

Senator Baker: You must have recently joined Fisheries and Oceans.

Ms. Mithani: Yes, I have been here for two years.

Senator Baker: This is incredible, Mr. Balfour. If I were in your position, I would assign her immediately to investigate the values of seal meat and what is in the product that produces the results that Senator Patterson and I have seen with peoples in the North.

Dr. Mithani, I do not know if you have had enough time to get orientated to the department. You were always with Health and Welfare Canada, were you not, and before that you worked internationally?

Ms. Mithani: Yes.

Senator Baker: Will you have a role in this? Will the department now do something very intelligent and set you loose to find out the real values of seal products?

Ms. Mithani: The mandate of the ecosystems and ocean science sector for which I am responsible does not have the authority or the responsibility of looking at medical uses of seal products, so I am afraid that this is not what I will be doing. However, I can tell you that the scientific conclusions that have come from the advisory process are very sound.

Senator Baker: That is very encouraging. You have Ph.D.s and all kinds of authority behind your name. You are an expert in how drugs or food would affect your mind and your body.

Mr. Balfour, I really think you should consider a new assignment for Dr. Mithani.

As Senator Patterson will tell you, after you eat seal meat there is almost an instant increase of energy.

Is that not correct, senator?

Senator Patterson: Yes, it warms you up in the cold like nothing else.

Senator Baker: Yes, that is one of the incredible things about this food.

Mr. Balfour, as I understand it, there is an offer from a fisherman's co-op on the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador with which the chairman, Senator Manning, is very familiar, to handle some of the meat. Did the former Minister of Fisheries not go to China and arrange for markets for that product?

Mr. Balfour: Our former minister was in China last January where there was the initialing of a cooperation arrangement that is now under review by the Chinese government. When they complete their review, it will hopefully permit the import into China of seal meat and oils for use there.

The department and the Province of Nova Scotia collaborated with the northeast coast sealers cooperative last year on a project. They arranged to have the approximately 200 grey seals that were harvested last year on Hay Island stabilized and brought to Newfoundland where they were used for testing on oils and seal meat. It involved some work at the Prince Edward Island veterinarian college, for example. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was involved to confirm that there were no contaminants in the meat and that it is of high quality and suitable for human use. This cooperative has developed samples and they are looking at opportunities to penetrate the Chinese and other Asian markets with those products when they open up. It does hold some promise.

Senator Baker: As the chairman knows, the seal pelts themselves are used for clothing and shoes. Big-shot golfers in Florida and other places are using seal skin shoes that cost about $2,000 a pair because it is the ideal thing for golfing. The entire product can be used, as the chairman has attested to many times.

The Chair: Thank you, Senator Baker. It is great to be discussing grey seals with your colour commentary.

With regard to the markets, you touched on the efforts going into creating a market in China for seal meat and other seal products. Are there any other ongoing efforts with other countries similar to what we are doing in China with regard to developing a market for products?

Mr. Balfour: I am not aware of other specific initiatives at this point in time. As I noted earlier, there is a working group that has been formed to carry out collaboration with the provinces under the auspices of the Atlantic Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers. It is to develop an innovation, strategy and market strategy with the industry to be able to continue efforts — with respect to grey seal and harp seal — to look for other product forms and market opportunities.

The Chair: Is there anyone in the department who is working towards heart valves and other products of the seals? Is there any concentration within the department on trying to find something of that nature?

Mr. Balfour: In terms of fish or seafood product development, promotion or market access, it is not the kind of work that DFO is mandated to do. We have been playing a facilitating role, as much as we can, to help coordinate efforts that would involve provinces equipped with such capacities. There is collaboration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has the seafood promotion program, and of course there is Foreign Affairs and International Trade. As far as trying to bring that together, we are centred on our role about managing the harvest seals and the science. We do not do any work with product development as a department, with respect to any species of fish or marine mammal.

The Chair: Has your department, or some other department of government, been approached in relation to the heart valves? Are you aware of any efforts?

Mr. Balfour: The department has not been approached, other than to provide consideration of developmental quota for harp seal. That would allow for the taking of harp seal outside of the normal hunt and to be able to provide a source of animals to develop those kinds of products. We have been involved from that perspective, and have endeavoured to be cooperative. Quite frankly, the commercial sealing industry has as well. It has provided for a set-aside of developmental quota for any kind of innovative product development off the top of what was available for the total allowable harvest of harp seals.

Senator Raine: I apologize for being late. I will read the minutes of the meeting.

I hope this has not been asked already, but in what I have reviewed it seems to me that we need to do a reduction in the stock to balance nature. If we are going to remove 73,000 grey seals, how many jobs would that create? What would be the best way to go about it? I cannot see going and hiring an army to do that. It seems more logical to use people who already know how to hunt seals, and pay them to hunt. Could we do this expeditiously? We are playing catch-up because it has gotten out of control.

Mr. Balfour: I would agree with you. If we were to proceed with the target removal of grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, we would be looking to have a targeted strategy so we are concentrating on animals predating on cod. The intention would be to use professional seal harvesters to carry out the activity. They are trained and experienced in the humane killing of seals, and that would be a critical part of doing this.

It would be done at a scale that would be such that the department could assure itself that it would be well-managed, well-monitored, and controlled. We would have to ensure that the removals were targeted where we believed that it would make the best result in terms of achieving the objectives.

Senator Raine: What would happen to the carcasses when this removal of the seals was being done?

Mr. Balfour: When the seal has been dispatched, and after it has been bled, we would likely see the need to open up the body cavity of the seal so it could then sink. Then it would be become a part of ecosystem.

Ideally, if there was an opportunity for the use of these animals — for production of a meal or some sort of a reduction — that would be something we would be interested in examining if it could operate on a commercial basis.

Senator Raine: Even if we removed 73,000 seals, we would probably still have lots left for developing a commercial harvest and new products. It is not like we are going to run out of them.

Mr. Balfour: Absolutely not. I will let the scientists speak to this, but the removal of the 70,000 animals over the five years would not have any impact on what would otherwise be the total allowable harvest available for commercial seal harvesters. That is currently at 60,000 animals. The population will be able to replace itself. The intention is we would be giving the cod a rest. In all likelihood, we could anticipate he seals would ultimately repopulate the areas of the gulf we would be removing them from. It would hopefully be done so the cod will have broken out of the circumstances it is in currently and has the facility to reproduce and withstand the mortality from seal predation.

Senator Hervieux-Payette: As you know, I have been called all sorts of names by Madam Bardot because I was supporting the seal hunters. I do not want to deny that great reputation she has given me. However, I think that now they are doing control of the population with the Danish government. They are killing and burning, and that is why I am here tonight. I am not usually on this committee. I might be interested to continue to study this question. I am much more scandalized by the Europeans who are going before the World Trade Organization to fight Canada on this issue while they are also allowing the killing of all sorts of animals. I do not think it is a very humane way of killing animals, but it is done in every European country.

I hope that our government will continue to fight and that we will denounce other governments that are not doing it. I do not question the way they are killed. I do not know how they are killing them. I just know that they are not using them. That was my concern. I am here to ensure that if it is not your department, it is another department that will work in using these animals in a sustainable way.

I would like to have the graph of your year by year projections after we kill 70,000, as well as the reproduction rate in order to see what will happen to the population — the birth rate, the death rate and the fact that we will remove 14,000 animals per year. We need that. People know I am not a very conservative person, but I will defend this policy and also congratulate your department for the work that is being done. We rely on you for scientific evidence.

I know that the Government of Nunavut will be here. I hope that they will also sign the agreement to do the harvesting in a humane way. We have developed a code of conduct with the industry and the provinces that goes beyond your regulations. It is a state of mind; it is people understanding what they are doing, and it is done in the best interests of all the species on this planet, including us.

Do you agree with me? Shall we get this information?

Ms. Mithani: We have very sound scientific rationale for targeted removal of a certain number in a particular area. There was deliberation with respect to whether the removal of 70,000 would cause any collateral damage to the grey seals. This was also deliberated on by the zonal advisory process. Their conclusion, based on their calculations, was that both the direct and the indirect evidence in our science program shows that they do not anticipate collateral damage to the seal population.

It is also important to note that if the science advice is taken and we move forward with this management action, there would be science monitoring and modification, as required, as scientific data becomes available.

We have put in place a lot of security nets for moving forward, and there is a true science rationale for this.

Senator Patterson: I would like to acknowledge Senator Hervieux-Payette's commitment to understanding the traditional seal harvest in Northern Canada. Also, I think it is terrific that we have on our committee a senator who has eaten seal and understands its enormous nutritional value. However, I digress.

You mentioned that there are six species of seals in what I would call the southern waters. We talked about the grey seals' predation on cod. Of the other seal species, do we know much about what they eat? Do we know whether they eat cod as well?

Mr. Simon: Yes, we have some information. The two other species that are most abundant in the Atlantic region are the hooded seal and the harp seal, and we have studied their diet a great deal. We never reached a conclusion on either of them similar to what we found for the grey seal. The harp and hooded seal were the focus of a panel appointed by a previous minister. They looked at it, but due to the complexity they could not reach a conclusion. They say that harp seals eat a large quantity of fish, including a large quantity of cod, but they did not have enough information to conclude that if the population of harp seals were reduced it would benefit the cod. The uncertainty is due to the other factors that contribute to cod mortality.

The hooded seal is a very large animal. They eat fish as well, but we know a bit less about their diet. We know what they eat, but to know what impact they could have on the populations they prey on we would need more information.

Senator Patterson: The hooded seal and the harp seal are larger than the grey seals at maturity; is that correct?

Mr. Simon: No. The hooded seal are the largest and then the grey seal and then the harp seal.

Senator Oliver: How much do they weigh?

Mr. Simon: You are testing me. The harp seal weighs about 200 kilos and the hooded seal will go up to 460 kilos.

The Chair: I want to thank the witnesses for coming tonight. You have provided a great deal of information. As I said, this was our first session. We reserve the right to call you back if we need clarification on some issues. We look forward to an interesting debate over the next couple of months as we try to find some middle ground. As you see today, we have people who are strong on both sides of the issue. We look forward to Senator Harb telling us of some positive impact that the grey seals have on the cod. The only thing I can think of is that they make them swim faster. We will decide where that goes.

Thank you for your presence here today.

(The committee adjourned.)

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