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POFO - Standing Committee

Fisheries and Oceans



OTTAWA, Thursday, May 11, 2023

The Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans met with videoconference this day at 9:07 a.m. [ET] to examine and report on Canada’s seal populations and their effect on Canada’s fisheries.

Senator Fabian Manning (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: Good morning. My name is Fabian Manning, senator from Newfoundland and Labrador. I have the pleasure of chairing this meeting.

Today, we are conducting a meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. Should any technical challenges arise, particularly in relation to interpretation, please signal this to the chair or the clerk, and we will work to resolve the issue.

Before we begin, I would like to take a few moments to allow the members of the committee to introduce themselves.

Senator M. Deacon: Good morning. Marty Deacon from Ontario.

Senator Cordy: Jane Cordy from Nova Scotia.

Senator Ravalia: Good morning and welcome. I’m Mohamed-Iqbal Ravalia from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Senator Ataullahjan: Good morning. Salma Ataullahjan from Ontario.

Senator Francis: Good morning. Brian Francis from Prince Edward Island.

Senator R. Patterson: Good morning. Rebecca Patterson from Ontario.

Senator Kutcher: Stan Kutcher from Nova Scotia.

The Chair: On October 4, 2022, the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans was authorized to examine and report on Canada’s seal populations and their effect on Canada’s fisheries. Today, for our first panel under this mandate, the committee will be hearing from Andrew Trites, Professor and Director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia.

On behalf of the committee, I thank you Dr. Trites and understand you have some opening remarks. Following your presentation, I’m sure the senators will have some questions for you. The floor is yours, sir.

Andrew Trites, Professor and Director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, as an individual: Thank you very much.

Good morning, everyone. My name is Andrew Trites. I am a professor in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, and I’m the Director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit. I have been studying increasing and decreasing populations of marine mammals for over 40 years, and I have specialized in studying seals, sea lions and fur seals. My research encompasses field studies, laboratory work and computer-based studies. Many of my studies have been done in collaboration with research scientists in universities and government in Canada and in the United States, as well as in Europe.

I have also served and continue to serve on a number of advisory committees, including the Marine Mammal Specialist Group for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC. As such, I am acutely aware of the threats and conservation challenges facing pinnipeds in Canada, as well as the challenges that pinnipeds pose for fisheries and management.

Regarding pinniped management and fishery impacts, I would like to bring three points of discussion to your attention. The first concerns the commonly held belief that pinnipeds in Canada are out of control, their numbers are exploding and there is an overpopulation.

To the best of my knowledge, all such statements of overpopulation appear to be based on a baseline of unnaturally low historic population sizes in the 1960s and 1970s when it was unusual — at least in British Columbia — to ever see a pinniped because they had been culled and hunted to unprecedented low numbers.

In British Columbia, for example, all populations of pinnipeds have recovered or are in the process of recovering from over-exploitation. There is no overpopulation of pinnipeds. Harbour seals have been stable and at carrying capacity for over 25 years at about 100,000 animals. The next stable population is the adult male California sea lions that have numbered about 14,000 since the late 2010s — and which originate from breeding colonies in California that stabilized 10 years earlier. Next in line in the stabilization process are the Steller sea lions, which are listed as a species of special concern in Canada, and appear to be quickly approaching their carrying capacity of about 45,000 animals. Adding these three numbers yields a total of 159,000 pinnipeds, which pales in comparison to the 2.5 million people who live in the Greater Vancouver Regional District. The bottom line is that there is not an overpopulation of pinnipeds in British Columbia. Pinniped populations are balanced and being maintained at natural levels through natural ecosystem processes that do not cost a penny of taxpayers’ money.

The second point I would like to briefly reflect on with you is the perception that pinnipeds consume excessive amounts of fish, and that predation by pinnipeds is bad and harmful to species and ecosystems. I often hear people giving estimates of how many tons of fish a pinniped consumes per year, which always sounds like an astronomical amount until you compare it to how much food and drinks an average person of the same size consumes per year. If you make this comparison, you might be surprised to discover that people consume more than pinnipeds.

There is also a biased belief by many that seals are targeting fish that would end up in Canadian fish markets if there were no seals. In reality, a predator such as a seal has a much better chance of catching slow, diseased and inferior fish, which many Canadians would likely not want to eat. Predation by seals ultimately makes fish populations healthier, which is a good thing for the health of Canadian fisheries. Similarly, predation by seals brings indirect benefits to ecosystems. For example, seals that consume predatory fish, such as large hake that eat young herring, can increase the abundance of juvenile herring available for salmon to consume.

Finally, there is increasing evidence coming from terrestrial ecology that reintroducing top predators to their former habitats benefits ecosystem stability and biodiversity. Such a rewilding phenomenon appears to be naturally occurring in Canada’s marine ecosystems, as our oceans are being rewilded by seals, sea lions, whales and sharks. Thus, the benefits of pinnipeds to ecosystem health appear to outweigh their perceived harm.

The final point I would like to make concerns the confidence that people have in stating the predictions made by mathematical predator-prey models, such as a model that predicts that removing half of all the pinnipeds in British Columbia will restore West Coast salmon. What you may not know is that the chance of the model being right is only 30% to 40%, and it would likely take about 10 to 20 years to determine if things will actually go according to plan. To some people, 30% to 40% odds are great because of the amount of money that stands to be made if people can catch more salmon or other species. However, those who put greater value on the life of a seal want more than 80% assurance of models being right before endorsing such predictions. It is, therefore, important to know and to ask about the level of confidence that underlies model predictions.

It is also important to recognize that societal views and values have changed significantly since the 1970s when pinniped numbers were at their lowest in recorded history.

In conclusion, I don’t know of a single case where the culling of pinnipeds has had the intended effect. I would, therefore, like to encourage you to consider, first of all, whether populations of pinnipeds that are stable and at carrying capacity can be deemed an overpopulation and in need of management. Second, I would like you to consider whether the benefits that pinnipeds bring to marine ecosystems far outweigh the harm they are perceived to do to fish and fisheries. Third, I would encourage you to consider whether the low probability that culling pinnipeds would actually increase the abundance of commercial and sport fish is worth the risk of failure, and worth causing greater harm to ecosystem health and the well-being of other highly valued species such as killer whales and sharks.

I look forward to discussing these issues with you, as well as answering questions related to funding gaps and the ways in which pinnipeds can be managed.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you today.

The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Trites. You have put forward some very interesting information. I’m sure our senators will have questions for you.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you, Dr. Trites. If you are on the West Coast now, we really appreciate you waking up so early in the morning.

Mr. Trites: Thank you.

Senator Kutcher: It is very much appreciated.

Thank you very much for the comments you just made to us. Are they directed to the West Coast primarily, or are they directed to both coasts equally?

Mr. Trites: My comments were specific to the West Coast, but I think they also apply to the East Coast. The one thing you have to keep in mind is that we are at different points in this transition from the heavily managed system to allowing systems to become rewilded. On the West Coast, for example, there are populations of the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been increasing and bringing stabilization to the ecosystem. On the East Coast, which has a much longer history of sealing, killer whales are relatively rare, and it’s going to take time for their numbers to increase. It’s taking time for the sharks to increase. They are controlling grey seal numbers. In terms of the natural controls in the ecosystem to control pinniped numbers, it is taking longer because they started from a lower base number of top predators to control them.

Senator Kutcher: Following up on that, we have heard comments that seal populations negatively impact salmon stocks on the West Coast — I will focus on the West Coast — and that decreases in the seal population would result in increases in the salmon stock. I heard you are concerned about the modelling — knowing about the degrees of error in any model is absolutely vital to be able to evaluate it.

Can you help us better understand the complex web between pinniped populations and salmon on the West Coast? There is, obviously, direct feeding, but there are also indirect components. I think you mentioned one of the most important ones: Feeding on hake changes the fingerling herring population, which actually might increase the salmon population. Could you help us understand the complexity of those webs so that we don’t think in linear directions?

Mr. Trites: The food webs are indeed complex. When we look at harbour seals, for example, we have about 100,000 harbour seals province-wide. If we look at their diet, we can easily list 40 to 50 species they consume. However, if you look at the top two that dominate almost all of their diet, you might expect it to be salmon, but it’s not. Salmon is a very small percentage of their diet — down to about 1% to 3%, depending on the species. They primarily eat Pacific hake, which is a cod‑type fish, and Pacific herring. They go for the large hake, and, if hake are allowed to become very large, their diet switches from essentially eating krill to eating fish. In this case, the seals are removing these very large, predatory fish, which is resulting in a greater abundance of small herring — ultimately this is going to be very good, as it feeds back into feeding young salmon. That’s just one example of some of the complexities.

Of course, from the surface of the ocean, one doesn’t see these sorts of things occurring. What one does see is, perhaps, somebody pulling in a fish on a line, such as a salmon, and then a seal takes it off the line — then one is drawing other conclusions about what their preferred prey is.

I’m not sure I reached exactly where you want me to go, but we are learning. My comment is not to say that seals don’t eat these fish, and that they don’t have impacts — because they do — but they’re not quite the way that many people might believe that they are.

We know, for example, that seals eat adult fish, but we have five species of salmon. They typically all come back in such large numbers that they swamp their predators. A seal, unlike a fishing boat, can only land as much as it can put into its stomach. It doesn’t have a large hold in order to bring back way more and save it for another day. As they come back, they have swamped their predators.

We also know that they take very small fish — at least some seals do. We’ve done tracking studies here, and we can identify some individuals that are specialized to intercept very tiny fish. While it is a very small per cent of their diet, when you add up how many small fish are coming out, it can represent a significant portion of the fish being released from rivers. We can see both the pluses and the minuses, but, as I have looked at things in the bigger picture, what I see is that the pluses far outweigh the negatives.

Senator Kutcher: One final thing, and I will have other questions for the second round, if that’s okay.

Would you say that observed correlation doesn’t imply direct causation?

Mr. Trites: You said it very well. I agree with you.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you.

Senator Cordy: As Senator Kutcher said, it is West Coast time. Thank you very much for not only being awake and up, but also ready to present on a television screen.

My first question relates to the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast; Senator Kutcher touched upon that in his comments and in one of his first questions. I am from Nova Scotia, and the Halifax East Fisheries Association spoke about the need for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or DFO, to react quickly to what they call “the seal problem.” They said that seals have enjoyed a strong recovery from the mid-twentieth century — their prey species have not. Many fishers remain at critically low levels, and a growing seal population means a significant decrease in the probability of recovery.

I wonder if you could comment on that because certainly they are not seeing that. They are seeing the problem with the fish.

Mr. Trites: I grew up in Nova Scotia — the Maritimes — so I do have a sense of some of the issues that are on the East Coast.

We have harbour seals and grey seals — at the moment, a lot of attention, particularly off Nova Scotia, is focused on the grey seals. Grey seals are also expanding their range into the United States, and they’re causing problems there as well because that system is changing. We also have harp seals and hooded seals, which have been more of an issue in Quebec and Newfoundland.

Layered over top of this, as these populations are increasing, we also have climate change effects. The loss of sea ice is having a huge impact on the ability of harp seals and hooded seals to give birth on the ice. Those populations will be moving north as the ice moves north, as that’s the only stable surface they have to give birth on. They can’t give birth on the water; the pups will drown. There are a lot of changes that are occurring.

Around Sable Island, for example, or along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., we are also seeing great white sharks show up. They are coming because there are seals there to eat. We are in a transition period of very rapid change caused by both climate change and the return of top predators that are feeding on it.

It is really unprecedented to see these changes happening, but we do see evidence of seals causing direct harm to fisheries in terms of damaging gear, as well as damaging fish that are being caught and reducing their marketability. There is evidence with the ships, in terms of parasites and seal worms, for example, so there are certainly issues there.

As I looked at some of the ecosystem modelling that’s being done — and trying to look at the effects of having seals, sea lions and whales in the ecosystems — I do see evidence that it is pushing our ecosystems into ones that are now going to become more stable with greater diversity. That may not necessarily mean all things will be great for fisheries, but, in terms of overall ecosystem health and the well-being of the collective species there, I think it will be a win-win in the long run.

We are further ahead with that on the West Coast. For seals, we have had a period of about 25 years of stable numbers. Our sea lions are just stabilizing in terms of the number of sea lions. However, I think we have a really good opportunity to sort this out and figure out how an ecosystem can be balanced by having top predators — in this case, killer whales and sharks — coming into it. The seals and sea lions are also top predators, and they can also bring effects.

Often, we think of predation as being a bad thing, but if you think of examples from the Serengeti, the lions are not catching the biggest and the fastest; they are pulling out the sick and the weak, and keeping those populations healthier.

The same thing is happening with fish. There are positive sides to predation, which are rarely mentioned or, I think, very few people are even aware of.

Senator Cordy: Thank you very much for that.

My next question — and you have already touched upon it — relates to the warming of the waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. I will speak about the Atlantic Ocean, if you don’t mind.

I certainly have also read about the loss of sea ice and the effect that’s having on the new seal pups being born. The ice that has remained is sometimes fragile, and I read in this particular article that the number of seal pups has reduced.

You touched upon it, certainly, in your comments about the warming of the oceans. We are reading about these species of fish that never would have been seen off the coast of Nova Scotia, but we are now seeing them because of warming. I know we are talking about the effect on the seal population, so if you can please tie the seals in with your answer regarding the warming of the waters.

Mr. Trites: As I mentioned earlier, sea ice is a big factor for some of our Canadian pinnipeds, but the other factor in terms of warming ocean temperatures for marine mammals, such as seals, is they can contend with a one- or two-degree temperature increase — heck, even 5 to 10 degrees. It is a bit like you or I stepping into a warm bath, or increasing it by a few more degrees.

It has huge consequences on fish: It raises their metabolisms. They require more fish to eat, or greater food consumption, so their distributions are going to shift. As they shift, the marine mammals will shift, too. They will head where the grocery stores are as that moves further north. We are going to see, I think, fairly dynamic changes. The sea ice will be pushing many of these pinnipeds further north. They will be less frequent in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. I think we are going to find, too, that the distributions of grey seals will push further north as they follow the fish.

This is all part of these very dynamic changes that are under way under our watch.

Senator Cordy: When we see — and we see this over the years; it usually takes a long time — adaptation by populations because of changes to the ecosystems, and you have said that they are moving further north, are there other changes that you are seeing in relation to the seal populations?

Mr. Trites: In terms of the time it takes to see these changes unfold, we are probably looking at 10 to 30 years. In regard to removing seals, let’s say, if one went through with the proposed idea to kill half of all the seals and sea lions in British Columbia, we wouldn’t know if that is going to work, or if it has a positive effect, for at least 10 to 20 years — during this time, so many other things would have probably happened in that system that one would say, “Well, it would have worked if something else had not happened.”

The other big change we’re seeing is the presence of transient killer whales. We have different types of killer whales, or different “ecotypes” as we refer to them. Some only eat fish; others specialize in eating sharks. In this case, we have one group that only eats other marine mammals.

When I moved to British Columbia in 1980 from Nova Scotia, I never saw a killer whale, or a marine-mammal-eating one, in the Salish Sea. Today, they’re here every single day. Their numbers have gone way up. You can go out here any day and I can find you killer whales. They’re here to eat the seals. These are changes which have taken, in this case, 40 years to happen here — but they’re very real.

Senator Cordy: Thank you very much. This is very interesting.

Senator Ravalia: Thank you, Professor Trites, for being here. I’d like to return to the topic of the East Coast. I live in a fishing community — on the northeast coast — heavily dependent on the fishery and the seal population. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in the number of harp seals off our coast. This has been a year where we’ve had a high concentration of sea ice coming into the bays, and my colleagues who fish have sent me videos of miles and miles of sea ice inhabited by large quantities of pinnipeds, particularly seals.

Experienced fishermen tell me that they see a direct relationship between this rising population — now estimated at well over 7 million — and the decline in the fish stocks, in particular cod, but now there’s also an impact on shrimp and crab. Scientists tell us that perhaps there are other reasons for the lack of a revival of these stocks, and that there may be other predators.

I’m wondering if you can comment on this because this is having an incredible economic impact on communities, such as mine, on the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mr. Trites: I hear what you’re saying, and I’ve heard similar things from fishermen on the West Coast as well. Yet, the science isn’t, for the most part, backing up the perceptions that people have. There is a disconnect. One of the things that is needed is to build a stronger collaboration between fishing communities and researchers so that we can test some of the ideas that people have — the things that they’re seeing — and either work through why we don’t see the same patterns, or have them explain what might be missing.

A number of years ago, there was a program called the Canadian Fisheries Research Network. It was a collaboration between academics, fishermen and government scientists, and it was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, or NSERC. We lasted for five years. To me, it was probably the most significant research I’ve ever been involved in because, for the first time, we had our graduate students talking to fishermen. We had fishermen trusting what they were hearing because their ideas were being heard by the students and being put into their research.

Unfortunately, the program ended. Many of us wanted to see it continue because, I think, this is the only way to have us all on the same page. Otherwise, I think we will be in this perpetual loop of having scientists say one thing while fishermen say another thing — and never seeing eye to eye on it. If you’re not familiar with it, this program still exists online in name, but, to me, it was a failure not to continue that because, going forward, we do need a new model in terms of how we manage and research fisheries, which includes seals in that framework. I think we need to re-establish this open dialogue, and have fishermen at the table with scientists working through these things. What I found is a much better understanding, and I think we saw eye to eye on the problems we worked through together. Now it’s missing. We haven’t had that for a long time.

Senator Ravalia: This gap between science and DFO and the knowledge on the ground appears to be widening every single day. There’s become such a dichotomy that there’s complete mistrust of the scientists in my community — certainly when people harvest and there’s absolutely nothing in the ocean.

Do you see a path forward where we can bring these two sides close together? You’ve alluded to this one particular organization, but I feel that it’s imperative because we are in a crisis. We’ve been in a cod moratorium since 1992. We’ve started to see a decline in our crab stocks as well. As I’ve mentioned previously, listening to people who have been on the water for 40‑plus years, they have a defined belief in why this is happening, and they definitely feel that pinnipeds are a huge part of this equation.

Mr. Trites: I hear what you’re saying, and for me as an academic — as a university professor — I think we have a role to play in helping to bridge that gap. To make that happen, it requires funding. Another one of my concerns has been how we are going to train the next generation of research scientists. Everyone working in DFO as a government scientist was trained at a university, yet in terms of marine mammal research, it’s very hard to obtain any funding to support a student. I don’t know where we’re going to draw the future scientists in Canada — perhaps from Europe, Australia or the United States where they seem to be doing a better job of funding the training of scientists. But, going forward, I am concerned about where our new scientists are going to come from.

Also, in universities, we find that a lot of the cutting-edge research, new techniques and technologies are being developed by the youngest minds. They’re very open to different possibilities. Again, we’re short on funding to make that happen.

The discord you mentioned on the East Coast is here on the West Coast as well. I attend meetings, and I often think that DFO scientists feel like they’re under attack, so they sort of huddle together — and that further widens the gap and the dialogue. But, as an academic, I think we walk down the centre, and we’re very open to listening to all sides and working with all sides. I think that would be a very productive way forward for both the East Coast and the West Coast.

Senator Ravalia: Thank you, Professor Trites.

The Chair: Dr. Trites, you mentioned the Canadian Fisheries Research Network, and that it has ended. Can you tell us a little bit about that, as well as where it was funded from and any details?

Mr. Trites: Yes. I wasn’t part of the organizing committee; I was just a member of it. I’m not the right person to give you the ins and outs of it. From what I know, it was funded through NSERC — probably with snippets of contribution from DFO as well. People put in different proposals, and they were evaluated. There was a steering group from the industry that helped identify what they felt were pressing issues — everything from lobsters on the East Coast to seal predation here on the West Coast. It funded an awful lot of really valuable research, but I think you’ll find some of those details by looking online. In my opinion, it was probably the most creative, productive and meaningful research that we’ve done as a society in Canada on fisheries issues. Sadly, we could not continue it.

If I could add one thing into that mix, there was one thing that I thought was missing from this unique bringing together of individuals: We only had research scientists from DFO’s side. We didn’t have the managers. To me, that was a failure because the managers need to hear from the researchers, the fishermen and the academics so that the policies they’re considering are fed by facts and look at the consensus. They were not in the room with us. I thought that was one of the failures. If it were to move forward, I think both sides of the DFO house need to be there — management should not necessarily just be top-down, but I think it should also be fed with bottom-up information.

The Chair: Thank you. We will certainly look into that. I appreciate you bringing that to our attention.

Senator M. Deacon: My first three questions have been well covered. I want to make sure that there is nothing left to say around your overall experience working with DFO and on seal research projects. If there is anything else we need to hear to improve that relationship, I would definitely keep that door open in my question.

Second, listening specifically to this conversation, how do we parse out the effects of salmon stocks in the future due to climate change and seal populations? I’m a guest on this committee, but listening to your testimony today, I get the sense that pinnipeds are a convenient, in some sense, scapegoat for changes wrought by the larger forces of climate change. Is the debate around trying to control seal populations a red herring — excuse the pun — when we need to look at the larger forces of climate change on our fish stocks?

Mr. Trites: There is no doubt that climate change is the driving and most significant threat to Canadian fisheries, particularly salmon, here on the West Coast. I do think that often seals are the scapegoat, in part, because it’s a visible source of mortality. One can see predation occurring on the surface. The animals, for the most part, need to bring their fish back to the surface to consume it. So it’s pointed to as being, “Aha.”

Again, as pointed out, it is a correlation — it is not causation.

There has been a program here on the West Coast funded through the Pacific Salmon Foundation in collaboration with another group in the United States called Long Live the Kings. We have been working together on predation questions with both groups for 10 years now. Next week, we’re all getting together in Bellingham, Washington State, and bringing everybody up to date. We put a number of students through that program.

On that, as an example, we have all the leading salmon experts at the table with us. There is no consensus about what is wrong with our salmon stocks.

We have five different species of salmon, such as pink salmon — there are enormous numbers of them in the ocean. That’s not the problem; it’s about getting down to the commercially valuable ones — the Chinook salmon, coho salmon and sockeye salmon are the primary ones that most people have been concerned about.

To provide you with an example here, some people say, without a doubt, it has to be the seals. The models say that, but, again, the models are only as good as the information you put into it — and there’s a huge uncertainty in those predictions.

There’s another body of thought, supported by a number of scientists, that the real trouble is actually fish hatcheries or salmon hatcheries. You might think, “How could hatcheries be a bad thing? The public loves them. We just let all of these baby fish into the ocean.” Well, it appears that by putting so many baby fish into the ocean, the hatchery fish are competing with the wild fish. None of them are growing enough in the juvenile stages. They have to stay inshore longer and are, therefore, exposed to more predation before they become big enough to reach the sea in order to continue their life cycle.

I could point you to others who would say, “No, we’re 100% sure it’s not the seals; it’s the hatcheries.” But the thought of closing hatcheries as an experiment is not very appealing to many, given that it seems like such a natural thing to do. The bottom line is that oceans are not bottomless in the sense of how much food is available for young fish to eat and grow — and to ultimately make them available to fisheries.

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you. Truly, Professor Trites, for every action, there is a reaction.

I just want to finish that opening part of my statement. Is there anything else — that we haven’t heard — that’s getting in the way of the partnerships between government, academia and on the ground regarding the work that you feel needs to be done?

Mr. Trites: The biggest thing we face is the funding that allows us to bring in students to build these relationships — and to make it a priority to see government scientists sitting with fishermen and academics that, in many ways, can often be the arbitrator, as well as a point that all groups can focus on.

I think there’s another need — even just with our graduate students — not only looking at seals, but also looking at fish. We’re training a new generation of scientists who have never met a fisherman, yet they are going to be controlling and recommending how much they should be able to catch. Their emphasis here is on conservation, and, sadly, often it’s about how to stop fishing in order to leave more fish in the ocean.

Through the Canadian Fisheries Research Network, I found that the students we had coming there — who had never met a fisherman before — were sitting at a table and talking one‑on‑one with husbands and wives about fishing. They’ve received invitations to go into fishing boats. This is something that’s missing from their training: building these relationships. Through those relationships comes trust — what is being told to them from the science is trusted as opposed to being viewed with suspicion. I think we need to find mechanisms to build these relationships. It starts by working with our young people to build those relationships.

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you.

The Chair: Professor Trites, there’s a shared concern that we have people making decisions on the fisheries who haven’t seen a fish.

Mr. Trites: If I could add to that, a number of years ago, we had a leading researcher from Alaska present a seminar to our graduate students. Many of these people are doing these ecosystem models, and they have all these different species of fish in it. Embarrassingly, the researcher put up pictures of the fish, and he asked the audience, “Can anybody tell me what fish this is?” Nobody could tell him. They knew the names — they just couldn’t connect to what it actually looked like.

What you say is very true; this hands-on knowledge is missing in our education system today, in my opinion.

The Chair: Thank you. Just to let you know, we’re down to about 14 or 15 minutes on this panel here. I hate doing this, but time is not my friend.

Senator R. Patterson: Thank you very much. This is fascinating. I’m going to return to talking about modelling and data. You provide a very comprehensive testimony here. What I’m actually seeing, as I’m hearing a few things, is there’s nothing about us without us. When you talk about any change management, we’re in a changing world, and we have tiny pockets of excellence everywhere, but I’m hearing that there’s no harmonization. When you’re trying to create new modelling, you have to actually invest in it — 30% to 40%. I can understand why those who sit there and see no fish in their nets are going to have a big issue.

What needs to happen in order to invest in a cohesive build of a better modelling tool that, obviously, will need to have regional differences? We also forget the St. Lawrence Seaway as well, which is also impacted by this. We’re a massive country with different needs. Where can you see this heading? I’ve heard about your Canadian fisheries research. How can we do this?

Mr. Trites: The models are only as good as the data you put into it, and often the data being put into the models are coming from government scientists. For the most part, DFO is monitoring and collecting baseline data about numbers, distributions, diets and movements. That’s where, if we have uncertainty or not much confidence in the models, we can identify the variables we don’t know enough about, and then we can direct research to collect more in order to fill in those gaps.

My point earlier was that often people will talk about the prediction without ever asking, “What’s your confidence?” If we based how we’re going to dress tomorrow on the confidence of the weather being 30% right, you probably wouldn’t have much confidence, but we’re doing much better.

The models and the technology have advanced with the power of computers, but we can only go as far as the data. With all of the models, they can identify which data we need more of, and help guide the research in that way.

Senator R. Patterson: If you could build this system, and build that delta you talked about in terms of research — I’m going to say DFO because that’s the body we keep coming back to — how would you see a better system being built? I hear a lot of outputs, but not a lot of outcomes being included. What would this look like?

Mr. Trites: “Outcomes” is an interesting word. This is one area where academic researchers differ from government researchers. I think often with government researchers, there’s always mañana; there’s no rush. But when you’re in academia, you have to have the results out within two, three or maybe five years for a PhD student. There is no mañana. We work to a very different drumbeat, and we have a different time frame — to obtain the best value, I think it’s about combining the strengths that each of our organizations brings to the table with the addition of fishermen sitting with us and being part of our committee and advising students.

One funding model might be a pot of money, which is on condition of being advised by industry groups, DFO and academics to decide on the priority projects. Do it as an experiment to see how it works.

I have no doubt, based on my experience with the Canadian Fisheries Research Network, that it will yield up great dividends, as well as lower some of the barriers that I currently see in terms of how Canadian research is being viewed within the fishing industry.

Senator R. Patterson: Thank you.

Senator Ataullahjan: Good morning.

I am fascinated with what I’m hearing this morning, so I’m asking you to comment on the fact that our Nordic neighbours — Iceland and Norway — have similar biosystems to ours, but they have managed their pinniped populations in a way that allows for a revival of commercial fishing.

Mr. Trites: I guess I might question to what extent the way they manage their pinnipeds has actually benefited fisheries.

Often, in these things, we don’t have any controls, in an experimental sense, to know, “What would have happened if they hadn’t? Would it be any different, or is it due to other factors?”

One has to be cautious in assuming that the way they’ve managed it has actually benefited fisheries because we don’t have any other control — in terms of what you can compare to — to see whether or not it was due to that or due to something else.

Senator Kutcher: May I suggest that I will make a very brief comment. Then, I’ll write my question out, Professor Trites, and we can send it to you so that Senator Ravalia will also have a chance to ask a question.

Mr. Trites: Sure.

Senator Kutcher: I want to, first of all, thank you. You are reminding us that science is not about establishing the truth; it’s about helping us to be less often wrong — less often than always. That’s what we struggle with because we can’t expect science to give us the truth, but we need to have people on the ground and scientists working together.

My question to you will be regarding that issue, and it will be picking up from Senator Patterson’s question. What can Canada do better? How can we do this better? We’re hearing over and over again that we need to increase capacity in our science, not just in DFO, but in academia as well — but they are not linked together very well. Your institution is grant-driven, and having been there myself for years, I understand the problems with that.

The other issue is that we do not communicate the science well at all.

Mr. Trites: Yes.

Senator Kutcher: We don’t have the fishers at the table, and we don’t have the population at the table — and our science communication sucks.

My question is going to be around those areas, so I’m giving you a foreshadowing of what it will be in order to help us out.

Thank you.

Mr. Trites: Sure.

Senator Ravalia: Very briefly, my question would be an extension of what Senator Ataullahjan just asked.

If we’re saying that the Nordic countries have taken a particular route to manage their pinniped population, and they have a relatively successful commercial fishery, could we then say that the control is what’s happening in Canada — where we have not done anything, and we’ve seen a fishery that is in decline and is extremely vulnerable? Could that be our control in a comparative study?

Mr. Trites: I think it’s a very good suggestion, and I think there would be a lot of value in doing that comparison to ensure we’re comparing apples to apples — and not apples to oranges.

But I think you have a great suggestion, and a great thesis topic for a graduate student to dig in and compare these systems. Yes, it’s a wonderful idea.

Senator Ravalia: Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Trites. It’s been a very informative conversation, and we thank you for your suggestions and your answers — go ahead.

Mr. Trites: Could I make one final point?

There are two things in terms of experimental controls. We often hear about the need to remove pinnipeds or culling, or maybe it’s framed as being a hunt, but I think one needs to figure out what the experimental controls are in order to know whether or not you had the effect that was intended.

The second thing I want to mention is the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. It’s a piece of legislation — the only one in the world — geared toward just one group of organisms which is, in this case, marine mammals. Should any actions in Canada harm a marine mammal in contravention to the U.S. act, Canadian fish products would be banned.

For example, if seals were to be culled in British Columbia, that’s going to have a direct impact on transient killer whales. It’s a shared population with the United States, and I would not be surprised to see it go to court and end up with Canadian fish products being banned. One has to think, too, about the broader implications and how legislation in other countries could impact decisions that are made in Canada.

The Chair: That’s a good point. You have to take in the whole picture, for sure.

On behalf of the committee, thank you for your testimony here today, as well as your answers to our questions — and certainly for waking up a little bit earlier on the West Coast than here in Central Canada. Your conversation has been worthwhile and fruitful for us. Senator Kutcher and others may follow up with some questions for you.

Mr. Trites: Sure. Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Trites.

For our second panel, joining us by video conference is Gil Theriault, Director of the Intra-Quebec Sealers Association. Thank you for joining us this morning. I understand you have some opening remarks, and then we will have questions from the senators.

The floor is yours, sir.

Gil Theriault, Director, Intra-Quebec Sealers Association: Thank you very much for the invitation. I don’t have anything written down. I might be a bit of a nightmare for translators because my daily life is in French, and I conduct most of my research in English, so I am sort of switching back and forth sometimes. I will try to do my best to stick to English in this case — sorry for the accent.

Basically, I would say that I’m an observer. I’ve been working in the seal industry. The first year was 1992, so that provides me with a bit of a perspective on the whole thing. I have a background in journalism. I do a lot of conferences and this and that, so I guess if one observes for long enough, one can come up with some interesting analysis if one is not too stupid. I hope I can bring some elements to the discussion today.

Here is what I observed in the last 30 years or so: I would say the story of the sealing industry is — some may not like the word — a story of bullying, basically, which is an old term. I could try a new term that is trendier for now, and that’s “foreign interference.” Just because it is not coming from China doesn’t mean it’s not foreign interference. What is going on right now with the U.S., especially with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is basically what it is.

We have a tremendous number of seals in Canada, which is a great resource. It seems like our neighbours to the south are preventing us from using that resource. As well, they are not helping us with the fishery at all. The fishery in Eastern Canada is definitely collapsing. When you look at all of the numbers and all of the species that are going down, basically what we have left in our water is crab and lobster. Soon, with the right whales and the white sharks coming in — attracted by the seals — when I talk to my fellow fishermen, they see a very bleak future in the commercial fishery. In the future, they believe all that will be left in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will be protected species. Even though seals are far from endangered, we are still acting as if they are.

The other word I would use here is “eco-colonialism” because, once again, it’s people outside of the reality we are living who are dictating what is good and not good for us to do, despite all of the scientific evidence and rationale.

This is not the first time I have appeared before a committee — either a Senate committee or a House of Commons committee. Unfortunately, for the last 30 years, it didn’t go forward at all, so I’m hoping this committee will be a bit different. One lives on hope.

I am ready for questions.

The Chair: Thank you. Before we proceed to Senator Kutcher for our first question, my advice to you is please don’t worry about apologizing for an accent. A few of us have one of those. Our interpreters meet my challenge every day, so don’t worry about that either. They are great people. They will get through.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you both for reminding us that, actually, everybody has an accent — it just happens to be that it is commented on. You are among friends and colleagues here, so we are all good. My father spoke six different languages, but he had a very strong accent when he spoke English. He would often tell people that the reason his English was so heavily accented was because he was fluent in other languages. We should remember that one.

Thank you, Mr. Theriault. You mentioned that you conduct your research in English. Have you had opportunities — and, if you have, you can share how that worked out — to work with scientists from DFO? Or, I imagine, the Université du Québec à Rimouski would be the closest academic institution to you. Or are there other academic institutions? Have you had an opportunity to do that kind of work and, if so, what was it?

Mr. Theriault: I worked closely with a lot of scientists; one of them was Mike Hammill — who recently retired — as well as Garry Stenson and Doug Swain. I could name many of those brilliant scientists. I would say it went fine. The biggest concern I have is that at DFO, they are still working on the precautionary approach. In my opinion, that’s as outdated as the anthropocentrism approach once was — you know, a few decades ago, or 100 years ago. Now we need the ecosystem approach; we have needed that for some decades. DFO is really behind in that regard.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you very much. I think you put your finger on something that we’re hearing more and more about: the need to understand the complexity of the ecosystem, and the relationship of the ecosystem to existing commercial fisheries. We know that ocean waters are changing. Fish stocks are moving. Pinnipeds and other sea mammals are moving. This will impact commercial fisheries.

I am wondering if you have a crystal ball and you can think about this for the future. Is there some way that Canadian commercial fishers have to think about other viable commercial species than the ones we have traditionally utilized? Is this on anybody’s radar? Would this be part of an ecosystem research approach?

Mr. Theriault: It definitely is. The ocean is vast and large; there are lots of resources in the ocean — I do believe in science very much, but science should never replace common sense. Unfortunately, it does happen too often in the case of the sealing industry. The reality here is very simple. We have a species which is above them all — a super predator. It doesn’t have any other predator than man and a few white sharks — more and more, unfortunately. No polar bear population is going to control the seal population. The population is not going to control itself either.

Sometimes, it looks like DFO is waiting until a big disease or starvation takes down those populations. This is a beautiful resource that we have plenty of.

I can provide you with a very simple example: A couple of years ago, we did some research on seal bait for crustaceans. We know it works wonderfully. But last year, we heard, “Oh, no more mackerels and no more herring.” We were in a bad situation for fishermen because that’s what they used for bait. We raised our hands and said, “Here is an idea. We have plenty of seals, and I mean plenty. We could use seals to bait those crustaceans.” There are plenty of seals. It is a local product, instead of buying bait from Spain, Taiwan or wherever. Instead of sending our Canadian money somewhere else, it would be great for the economy, and great for the environment, instead of all those carbon trays brought here and wrapped in paper. The whole thing makes total sense, but DFO raised its hand and said, “Sorry, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the U.S. will not like that. We won’t be able to export those products to the U.S.” I said, “Wow. This is terrible.” This is one solution that makes sense from every single angle you look at it, and it is still turned down because of some higher moral ground or something else. I don’t know; it is terrible — there is no other word for it.

Senator Ravalia: Thank you, Mr. Theriault. I want to shift gears and talk about markets for seal products. In my home province, seal quotas are not being met simply because we have a lack of marketability for seals and seal products. Do you see any way — based on your research, connections and vast portfolio in this industry — we can exploit potential markets, given our new Asia-Pacific track, as well as the need for protein in the Global South?

Mr. Theriault: You would probably be surprised that here in Quebec, we have more markets than products. We are lacking in products, not markets. People are crazy about the seal meat we have here. The local butcher has 30 products out of seal meat — sausages, pâté, terrines, you name it — and it is flying off the shelves.

I know there were great efforts made in marketing and great results, but I am saying that — before that — we need to be working on something else. We need to be working on, for example, internal markets. I don’t know if you know this: In Quebec, seal is a meat. In Newfoundland, seal is a fish. It creates all sorts of problems to trade within Canada — and we’re talking about exporting. We should, I think, put our gears in place here in Canada first, and then work on local markets. There are lots of it, and we have control on those markets which we don’t have in other countries.

If some activist groups protest, they will close the market overnight. They did that in China in 2010.

When you visit a different country, as I did in 1995 when I went to China, they were super interested in our products. On the contrary, this is a funny thing, but we were sort of afraid to show our products because we had seals, but we didn’t have any pictures of an older seal — just white pups. We thought, “Oh, my gosh. How can we advertise seal meat with white pups? They won’t be interested in buying that or eating that.” But we didn’t have any other choice, and we didn’t speak the language, so we could not put that in writing. Finally, we said, “Let’s show the picture.” And do you know what the Chinese people were saying? They said, “It’s beautiful. It must be delicious.” They don’t have the same apprehension that we have. That’s just to say that in China, they asked us, “What are you doing with the meat?” Back then, in 1995, we said, “Well, some of us eat it once in a while at a family dinner. That’s about it.” They said, “Okay, fine. We will give you 25 cents a pound because you are not doing anything with it.” Nowadays, when we visit China, and I’m bringing packages from the butcher here — $80 a kilogram — the discussion is a bit different: They ask, “Can we start at $50 a pound?” Then, we say, “I don’t know; it is flying off the shelves, and we don’t really need you. But if you want some, maybe we can cut a deal if you want large quantities.”

If we don’t use it at home, and if we don’t have full utilization at home, it is very tough to go to foreign markets. The first thing we need to do is clean up our house and do the maximum that we can in Canada. There is demand for pelts. There is demand for seal oil. There is demand for meat within Canada. Let’s put some effort here first.

Senator Cordy: Thank you for the information you are giving us; it’s really good. The reality is that the anti-sealers have great marketing skills, and they use the seal pups to great advantage in their advertising. I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine was the Minister of Fisheries. In one of the major Boston newspapers, they had a picture on the front page displaying the seal hunt on an ice floe in Newfoundland, and, of course, blood against the white of the ice floe made it a very aggressive photo on behalf of the anti-sealers — although it was news.

The minister obtained a copy of the paper from his staffer and looked at it. The seal hunt in Newfoundland had been delayed a day because of fog, so there was no hunt on that particular day. I don’t know where or when they got their picture, but it was not the seal hunt in Newfoundland on that day. Those kinds of things are happening.

How do we market the seal products? You have visited China, and you’ve travelled around the world to do marketing, and you have spoken about how, indeed, there is a market for seal products. How do we do that? Could you tell us a little bit more about the kinds of things you are doing in Quebec?

Mr. Theriault: That’s another reason we should start in the local market and expand. When it comes to activism, we are living in the past. If you do a survey right now in Eastern Canada, and ask people if they are for or against seal hunting, I think you would be very surprised. There would probably be 90% to 95% of people saying that they definitely approve of the seal hunt. They know the reality of what is happening in the ecosystem right now. They know that seals are eating a tremendous amount of food and killing even more. I’m not going to delve into the science of it, but it’s pretty clear. Once again, common sense prevails, too.

It is not a question of wanting to eliminate seals. It is just a matter of using a resource that is plentiful — that’s all. The way to do that is to put good products out there — high-quality products — whether it’s pelts or meat.

For example, that’s exactly what we did in Quebec. This butcher here did trial and error for many years — asking people to try this and try that — but it was improving. I don’t know if you know about the Magdalen Islands, but it is a very touristy place. We receive 60,000 to 70,000 visitors per year, and every single visitor who comes to the Magdalen Islands eats seal — unless they are a very strict vegan or vegetarian. Seal is available everywhere in every restaurant, so out of curiosity, they will try it.

We talk a lot about veganism and vegetarianism, but what is it? Is it 2% or 3% of the population? Often, it’s just for a certain period of time, and then they switch back to an omnivore diet. All of those people are coming here, and they eat products that they can’t not like — it is super good. You won’t like seal if you don’t eat meat, obviously, but if you are a carnivore or an omnivore, it’s super good. Once that’s in people’s minds and they taste it, then you can have a discussion with them. They can ask all sorts of questions like, “Is it all right to hunt seals? Is there a problem with the population? Is it cruel?” You can have a wonderful discussion with those people, and tell them the whole truth about what it is. When they go back to Montreal, Quebec, Vancouver or Calgary — wherever they come from — they bring that message with them. I think that’s why we do it — little step by little step. Those people are convinced ambassadors for seal products after that. I think we did a great job with that in Quebec over the past 10 to 15 years. Once again, if you do a survey in Quebec asking if it is good to continue seal hunting, there would be close to 100% approval on this.

Senator Cordy: Maybe your next job should be in marketing. You are very good at it. Thank you.

You spoke about the U.S. preventing Canada from exporting seal products to the U.S. Can you expand on that a bit? Also, is there anything Canada should be doing to open up those trade gates?

Mr. Theriault: The first thing Canada should do is challenge the Marine Mammal Protection Act scientifically — I’m not saying it should just be politically. It would involve telling the U.S., “You have the Marine Mammal Protection Act that basically says the seal is an endangered species. Where is your proof of that? Give us your numbers, and we will compare them to ours and see if you are right about that.”

At one point, Canada has to step up. We are not some second‑class country. Canada has to stand up for what’s right. That’s what the population is expecting from politicians. Sometimes, you have to defend your citizens. When you are talking about the seal industry, you are not talking about the urbanites of this great country. You are talking about coastal communities — often very fragile coastal communities — who don’t have that many options economically. Those people are expecting politicians to defend them, and to say to the United States, “The Marine Mammal Protection Act is great when it comes to right whales. Let’s work together because that population is in danger. But don’t prevent us from using a plentiful resource that would actually be good for the ecosystem if we were to hunt more — and bring some sort of balance there. That’s just not acceptable.” The discussion should be in that sense.

Senator Cordy: Thank you.

Senator R. Patterson: I’m looking for clarification. Within the research you have done in your area in Quebec, are Indigenous people players in the market, even if it is for subsistence harvesting? What are you seeing from those communities, and how is that impacting your overall platform to bring seal meat to the market?

Mr. Theriault: Recently, we’ve been working very closely with the Indigenous community. There are Indigenous hunters coming regularly to the Magdalen Islands to hunt seals here. The project is very interesting — it’s called Reconseal Inuksiuti, and I can talk to you more about it, or put you in contact with people who can do that for you.

The Indigenous people we are working with are the Inuit. They are the ones who still have a long history and close relationship with the seal.

What they’re saying is that taking seals from the North is good, but there are not that many in the North. However, taking seals from here is great because there are too many. We’re taking seals from here, which are easier to hunt, I would say, than back in the North, and then we send them to urban populations.

As you probably know, there are lots of Indigenous people living in urban areas, such as Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and everywhere in Canada. There is a large population of Indigenous people living there — often not in great economic conditions, unfortunately. Bringing them seal meat, seal skin and seal blubber is like heaven for them; it’s a treat for them. We’re building that bridge.

Once again, instead of saying, “Let’s do marketing for Indigenous people to sell products outside of Canada,” we’re saying, “No, let’s hunt seal in Canada, and let them use the product the way they want.” They eat it; they do crafts with it. They don’t waste anything — the skin, the bones and everything.

I think that sort of project has to be supported and anchored. That’s what we’re doing with close to no resources, and I think it is already on the radar of many people in Ottawa and people in power, but it’s a great example of how we should be using that great resource.

Senator R. Patterson: Thank you.

From what I’m hearing in everything you’ve said, there are two parts: It’s great to think internationally, but let’s think locally. I’m just summing up what I think I’ve heard.

We also know, as part of reconciliation — as you have said — even within Quebec, there are many unexplored avenues that need to be looked at in order to determine what it will look like for these communities. There have been programs launched. There was the Certification and Market Access Program for Seals in 2015. I had never heard of that until I saw it written down here. Again, it’s all focused on the European Union and export.

What would you recommend, or what would you say, to the government in order to try to look at that internal marketing that benefits all people?

Mr. Theriault: I understand; when the Canadian government is talking about the seal industry, they’re always thinking about Newfoundland, and I understand that Newfoundland has a very large quota of seals. They have a quota of close to 400,000 harp seals.

Unfortunately — not often enough — they don’t look at the other seal industry, which is in Quebec, which is with Indigenous people and which is in the Maritime provinces who want to get in the market because they want to protect their fisheries.

Also, I was talking about Indigenous people in general. Inuit people have the closest relationship with seals, historically, but all of the others, such as the Mi’kmaq and the other coastal Indigenous populations and communities, want to get in as well. We definitely have to do a lot of work with them.

When you look at the regulations, this is something that we really have to work on because it makes it very complicated for many people just to hunt. It’s the hunt that is naturally complicated, and we put so much regulation around it that we make it almost impossible to do so.

That’s also something we need to be looking at very closely.

Senator R. Patterson: Thank you very much. It’s much appreciated.

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you.

I think I’m going to close with a comment. On behalf of my colleagues, we hear the passion in your voice. We hear your frustration, for sure.

The questions that I would have liked to ask have been well covered and well heard — the local, the international and the global piece.

I do thank you because I’ve enjoyed seal pâté in the Magdalen Islands. I’m absolutely a fan. At first, I wasn’t so sure, and we asked questions. You talked about the 30 uses of seal, so we have learned much. I thank you very much today.

Mr. Theriault: Thank you.

Senator McPhedran: I want to build on the previous question from Senator Deacon where she referenced the food product.

I’m wondering if there’s anything you could tell us about the manufacturing requirements for the kind of food production that you’ve been describing. You’ve told us that the products are flying off the shelves.

Is this a fairly small-scale manufacturing for these products at this point? If there were to be much more hunting, what changes to the capacity and the infrastructure — for producing these food products for sale — would be required? Is this something that would be a quick response, or does there need to be some longer economic planning here?

Mr. Theriault: No, it would be fairly quick, I would say, because the expertise is there.

I’m going to provide you with a few examples: When I said that we need to do some cleanup at home, as I was saying, seal is a fish in Newfoundland, but it’s a meat in Quebec, which is strange already. But in Quebec, it allows us to mix, for example, pork fat with seal because it’s meat and meat — no problem.

But when you go to Newfoundland — and I’ve tasted some really interesting products from a great chef in Newfoundland — the problem is they cannot do that because seal is a fish, and you can’t mix fish and meat together due to cross-contamination. The regulation is in our way to conducting larger development.

I think a bit of a difference between Newfoundland and us — in Quebec — is that it’s true that we’re sort of doing an artisanal butchery on this. However, the butcher did a lot of testing, and, to him, it’s impossible to mechanically remove the fat; you have to do it by hand. If you forget just a tiny bit of fat, it oxidizes, and it tastes really strong. You need to be very precise with knives and work at it, and sometimes remove some of the meat with the blubber to ensure there’s no seal fat left at all in the meat.

It takes a lot of people and a lot of training. It takes a larger area of working, et cetera, but it can be done because the expertise is already there.

I know there are some projects on the Magdalen Islands to expand what we’re doing at the moment, but we’re not close to 400,000 seals. It’s a lot to process. I think we’re better off working toward quality than quantity in those types of products — because seal is never going to replace beef. It’s always going to be a niche market. It’s always going to be expensive because it’s expensive to hunt. Plus, it’s something you need to bring in little by little.

I’m going to provide you with a quick example: They did that with mackerel in Haiti. They sent cans of mackerel to Haiti. People were starving, but they gave the mackerel to the dogs, and they put the cans on their roofs in order to not get rain on their heads. Even if you’re starving, if it’s not in your culture, or if you’re not taught or coached on how to use seals, as well as how to eat it, how to cook it, et cetera, it might not end up well.

I think it’s something we’re going to build little by little — Quebec, the Maritimes and the rest of Canada. Just with that, I think we would practically reach our quota of 400,000 seals. If we have leftovers, let’s work with China, Korea or Japan.

First of all, let’s put a lot of effort within Canada. That’s my take on it.

Senator McPhedran: I have a follow-up in regard to a reference you made to your own specific trips looking at the Asian market, particularly in China. Could you clarify for me when your most recent trip occurred, and whether you saw any shift? You described increased cost and the ability to generate much more profit, but I’m hoping you can put that in a timeline here. Is this something that’s recent? If there were trade missions, for example, with a very specific focus on increasing the uptake of seal products, what would your advice be on that?

Mr. Theriault: First of all, I think there’s something that we need to keep in mind: We’re always saying that there’s no market for seal; it’s not true. There’s more of a market than we need, but it was artificially cut. When they did that embargo in the European Union, it’s not because there’s no market there. It’s because, now, the consumer in the European Union is deprived of their right to buy seal. That’s effectively what’s happening.

To answer your question on China, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to China — 1995 — but I went to France in 2012, or something like that. We had the same response in France. We brought some pâté, sausages and things like that. They love that type of food. God, there was some fancy stuff there, and we just brought our pâté, cut it and put it on plates — and nobody touched anything besides our stuff because they were very curious about it, and they loved it.

The markets are there.

The reason I’m saying that we should focus on Canada is that — even though you spend a lot of money, time and effort going to some foreign country — you’re going to have a bunch of activists bringing signs in front of the Canadian embassy, and the media will go crazy over it. It’s a handful of people, but they will close down the market because of that.

If we work on our local markets, we won’t have that problem. We can control the narratives here. That’s why I said that it’s something we need to work on locally first; if we have leftovers, let’s go to other countries later. But I think we have plenty of people to feed here in Canada. They are good products: There’s no hormones and no antibiotics, and it’s wild meat that’s full of protein and iron. It’s tasty. You cannot go wrong with it.

Senator McPhedran: Thank you.

Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you. I’ve learned a lot this morning.

As someone from Toronto, we look at the issues. Like Senator Cordy said, the photograph that everyone saw sort of mobilized everyone in the country against the seal hunt.

You talk about the markets in China and Korea. What about the markets in Africa — where there’s such a great demand and need for protein? Has anyone looked at those markets?

Mr. Theriault: I think there was some effort in grinding seals and making a protein powder with it. It could be something to look at.

But once again, I think we’re not heading in the right direction with it. As I said previously, the seal hunt is always going to be expensive. It’s expensive to get boats out there. It’s risky. The fuel is costly. The manpower is costly. You can spend a lot of money and come back to the wharf empty-handed. It’s never going to be a cheap product.

As I said, it’s not going to replace beef. While 400,000 looks like a lot, how many cattle do we use every day in Canada? We need to focus on high-end markets; that’s what we should be focusing on. There are plenty of them. It is proven that even when it’s not going well economically, high-end products are selling well. It’s a good niche.

It would be great if Canada wants to provide help to some countries and work on that type of product, but I think it would cost a lot of money to do that in the end for the result. Instead of doing that, I think we should focus on niche markets. The high-end markets are a lot more constructive.

Senator Ataullahjan: In those emerging economies in Africa, there is a market for high-end products. We are seeing people who do have a lot of income, and who are willing to pay for something like this. It might be worth exploring. Thank you.

Mr. Theriault: I understand, and you’re right. I went to Namibia a couple of years ago, and they’re already used to eating all sorts of meat: antelopes, giraffes and lions. They wouldn’t be reluctant to eat seals; that’s for sure.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you, Mr. Theriault. Before I ask my question, I want to acknowledge your comment to Senator McPhedran about controlling the narrative. You did it so beautifully for us when you talked about the oxidation of fatty acids as a bitter taste — “rancid” is really the word. It’s an excellent example — I’m impressed.

I’d like to ask about the Marine Mammal Protection Act. First, what aspects of that legislation make it difficult to harvest seals? Second, does that act recognize the difference between harvesting seals for food, social and ceremonial uses as opposed to strictly for commercial use? Those are the two questions I’d like to ask you.

Mr. Theriault: First of all, in regard to your first question related to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, that act shouldn’t apply to Canada. It’s not a problem to kill a seal here — it is, but only because the U.S. doesn’t like it.

Another example that has gone totally under the radar — not mine — was a couple of years back when we had a licence, which was called a “nuisance licence,” that a fisherman could acquire by paying $5. While fishing, it allowed a fisherman — if there were a ton of seals around him preventing him from fishing — to take a rifle to kill a few seals, and push them away to conduct his business as usual.

That licence was removed by DFO without consultation, or anything, just because the U.S. said they didn’t really like that; that was terrible.

During one of the meetings with the fishermen and DFO, I asked, “What happens now when a fisherman goes out there and is surrounded by seals that are wreaking havoc on his nets and traps? Can he scare them away?” No, he has to take his traps and nets, and move away. All of the fishermen said, “What? Can you repeat that, please? This is crazy.”

It doesn’t have a direct effect on Canadian seal hunting, but because the U.S. says they don’t like it — if we don’t do X, they won’t import our product. They control what we are doing here, which is incredible.

At one point — I’m saying it again — you have to call it bullying or foreign interference; that’s exactly what it is. They shouldn’t be able to tell us what to do here.

That’s one thing. It’s terrible to talk about it.

By the way, to finish that point, it doesn’t prevent the U.S. from hunting seals, for example, in Washington to protect some salmon species — they did that — or in Alaska to hunt some seal species. They’re doing whatever they want, but they tell us that we shouldn’t do it. That’s a bit hypocritical as well.

The other thing is that when Indigenous people hunt seals, it seems fine for everyone, including the European Union because, to them, it is not commercial. But if you tell that to Indigenous people, they will be upset with you. They’re saying, “What do you mean it’s not commercial? If we don’t eat that meat, we’ll go to the store and eat junk food that’s so costly it’s unbearable. We trade the skin and this and that. We do have a commercial hunt. We don’t live in the prehistoric age. We don’t go to the store to exchange a sealskin for a bag of flour. We live in a modern world. We need money for our fuel, bullets and things like that, so whatever we’re doing with seals is still a commercial hunt.” They might have more of a spiritual approach to it, but it’s still a commercial hunt.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you for raising those complexities for us. I, personally, was not aware — some of my colleagues are probably much more aware than I am — of these intricacies, nuances and complexities. I want to thank you for bringing them forward.

I’m going to ask our committee and our chair to look into them a bit more. Thank you so much.

Senator M. Deacon: I have one more quick question, if you don’t mind. Senator Kutcher mentioned this, too. You talked about the U.S. having control here. In Quebec, when you’re dealing with Quebec trade, do you see DFO as supporting you in any way or getting in the way?

Mr. Theriault: Oh, definitely getting in the way.

Senator M. Deacon: I just wanted to hear it.

Mr. Theriault: Oh, God. I’ve been working increasingly with fishermen — not only in the sealing industry. Sadly, right now, they’re saying that the biggest enemy of the fisheries is DFO. It’s not the activists anymore.

I don’t know; I think you have to look at the top of the pile somewhere, and see who’s there and who’s making the decisions, because it doesn’t make sense what’s going on right now.

As I was saying, the future for those small coastal communities looks very bleak because they’re looking at what’s going on: With grey seals, we went from 10,000 of them to 500,000 of them. This is not a small increase in population; it is an invasion. You can see that everywhere.

If you attend any fishermen’s meeting at the moment — lobster, crab, herring or whatever species — all they talk about are seals. They say, “We cannot do our jobs anymore.” Every time you try to come up with a solution, you have DFO saying, “I don’t think so.” They’re putting more and more regulations around it. Effectively, they’re saying that there’s a quota, so we should go out there and hunt. Okay, we’ll go hunt there, but DFO says, “No, you can’t go there.” Or we’ll go somewhere else and use that type of boat. However, DFO says, “No, you can’t use that type of boat.” Can we use that type of weapon? DFO says, “No, not that type of weapon.”

They’re saying that we should go, and that the quotas are there, but they put so many regulations around it that it makes it practically impossible to hunt.

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Theriault, for the information you passed on to us this morning, and thanks for your frank and direct answers to the questions from our senators. We thank you for taking the time to join us here this morning, and we wish you all the best.

Mr. Theriault: Thank you for the opportunity.

(The committee adjourned.)

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