ST. JOHN’S, NL – After years of promising growth, northern cod stocks are showing signs of decline.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada science has attributed the bulk of the stock’s decline to natural mortality causes, including predation.
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As a result, the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union is calling on DFO to focus on predation within the ecosystem, particularly grey and harp seals.
The fishermen’s union claims seals are playing a significant role in keeping cod stocks down.
In a press release, the FFAW states an adult seal can consume up to two tonnes of prey per year, with a substantial portion of its diet being cod. Furthermore, the union says seals also feast on key food sources of the northern cod, such as capelin.
Herring Neck fisherman Eldred Woodford agreed that there needs to be more focus on the relationship between seals and cod. He himself has come across seals with bellies full of female crab, capelin and herring.
Woodford said seals also feed heavily on cod as well.
“What they do with cod fish is what we call belly bites,” he said. “They go into a school of cod fish, bite a chunk out of their bellies to get their liver, and a few other important parts, and leave the rest of it to die.”
In 2016, DFO estimated the Atlantic harp seal population to be a healthy and abundant 7.4 million animals, nearly six times what it was in the 1970s.
A thriving seal harvest in the past was used to keep the population in control, but according to Woodford market declines have brought about smaller demands for the product, allowing the apex predator population to grow.
“We are trying to rebuild northern cod stocks,” Woodford said. “We have got to decide whether we are going to use fish resources to feed the world, or if we’re going to leave predators untouched for predation to wipe those resources out.”
With the world’s human population on the rise – 7.6 billion people – he says it shouldn’t be the latter.
“I don’t agree with wiping out a seal population, we’ve always supported a healthy population,” he said, “but it’s gone so far beyond that now, it’s not allowing some species of fish to rebound properly.”
Woodford, who is also president of the Canadian Sealers Association, says today’s market availability of between 60,000 and 70,000 animals isn’t enough to curb the seal population’s growth.
“It will play a little part in trying to alleviate the predator-prey relationship, but it’s definitely not doing anything to it because we are only talking small numbers,” he said. “We’re only harvesting some 15 per cent of allocated quotas.
The only solution, he says, is stronger markets that must be established on the federal level.
The lobbying efforts of animal rights activist groups have seen other countries place bans on seal products.
“The problem lies with Ottawa, (with our government) not doing its duty to protect our markets and gain access to new markets,” Woodford said.