The Seal Population IS in Balance - Scientists

Our local ocean is the source of some heated debate as of late. According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there are more than 100,000 seals in waters of the coast of British Columbia. Along with that number are tens of thousands of sea lions. The DFO estimates that’s about 10 times the number recorded in the 1970s (it should be noted, though, that prior to the 1970s, seals and sea lions were hunted and culled to the point it was rare anybody even saw them).

Both belong to the same family of ocean mammals; the scientific term is “pinniped.” Many are calling for a cull of seals and sea lions, pointing to a recent study that says they’re eating more than 600 metric tones of chinook salmon every year in Washington alone.

That’s a lot of fish that could otherwise be eaten by our beleaguered orca population, harvested by humans, or be let alone to reproduce the group says. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to lethally remove sea lions from specific areas of the Columbia River this last July in hopes of returning the Columbia River into a more balanced ecosystem.

But others say this is a knee-jerk reaction with no proof that it will help the local ecosystem.

Peter Ross, vice-president of research at Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Conservation Association, told the CBC that the food web is complex and is worried a seal and sea lion hunt would disrupt the balance between seals, salmon, and other marine creatures.

“I don’t know if there’s any good predator control study that’s ever demonstrated that killing off a predator has led to more prey,” he told CBC News.

Ross believes the decline in salmon has far more to do with habitat destruction as well as climate change.

In the same CBC article “B.C. Group wants to kill seals and sea lions to save the whales”, Gary Biggar, who is regional director with the Metis Nation of B.C., said he’s seen the sea lion population explode. He added that it’s not a big leap in logic to believe B.C.’s endangered southern resident killer whales would benefit from a cull. After all, the whales are in trouble because of a lack of their primary food, chinook salmon.

The Pacific Balance Pinniped Society (PBPS) which is made up of B.C. First Nations and commercial/sport fishers are pushing for the cull. Society vice president Thomas Sewid said there are California sea lions that are up in B.C., “eating all our fish.

Part of the group’s argument includes environmental benefits as well as economic benefits especially for Indigenous people. According to PBPS, seal meat is a delicacy in a lot of restaurants in Eastern Canada.

Again, Ocean Wise disagrees.

“The problem with culling seals in the hopes of saving southern resident killer whales, is that ecosystems are complicated,” Lance Barrett-Lennard, Ocean Wise’s director, told Global News. “In this case, one of the biggest predators of juvenile salmon is the hake… seals eat a lot of them, they eat many more hake than they do salmon. So, I think the notion of having a seal hunt that’s gonna save the whales, make a bunch of jobs, create economic prosperity is a non-starter.”

Clearly, both sides have arguments. But let’s look at the facts, as provided by the Canadian Geographic story “Proposal to reopen commercial seal hunt in B.C. could have consequences for transient killer whales”:

  • Harbour seal numbers are at about 105,000. “To put that into perspective, B.C. Place holds 55,000 people. So you could put more than half of all seals in that one building and they could each have a seat. When we spread that number of seals over the entire coast, it’s not that many. The fact is that they are already in balance; it’s just not a balance that some people like,” Dr. Andrew Trites, head of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told Canadian Geographic.

  • Once seals were protected by the Fisheries Act in 1971, their numbers began to increase. Those numbers increased rapidly until the 1990s and then stopped in 1999. The numbers have stayed constant since.

  • One of the reasons Trites believes the seal and sea lion population stopped growing is because of preditation by transient killer whales. Transient killer whales only eat marine mammals and they used to be quite rare to see. Today, Trites said, transient whales are seen every single day. “The Salish Sea has become probably the most important grocery store for these whales because that’s where the seals are. So the fact is that the transient killer whales are doing what the Pinniped Society wants and balancing the numbers of pinnipeds.”

  • A seal cull will result in starving the transient whale population “as well as increased preditation on other types of marine mammals, such as the harbour porpoise and Dall’s porpoise. The transients might be motivated to start attacking the calves of humpback whales.”

Those, folks, are the facts that make the most sense to us. We here at SeaLuxe hope the pro-cull parties take a good, long look at what the effects of wiping out half the seal and sea lion population will be.