OTTAWA - Canada should pay hunters to kill 70,000 seals off the East Coast to help the recovery of cod stocks even though there's little scientific evidence to support such a large cull, a Senate committee recommended Tuesday.
The committee spent almost a year studying a federal proposal to slaughter up to 70 per cent of the grey seal population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, a plan critics say has been driven by politics, not science.
"While acknowledging the ecological risks raised by some witnesses, the committee supports the logic of the proposed experimental reduction of grey seals in this area," the committee said in its report.
The chairman of the committee, Senator Fabian Manning of Newfoundland, admitted the call for a cull was not based on scientific research.
"There's no really solid research anywhere that shows us exactly — there's questions on both sides," he told a news conference on Parliament Hill.
Manning said scientific study during the recommended four-year slaughter will provide the government with the "research needed to address the concerns of people in Atlantic Canada and Quebec ... At the end of the period, we will have gained that research."
Jeff Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the committee's decision to characterize the proposed cull as an experiment was wrong.
"This won't be an experiment," Hutchings said in an interview.
"We can't do that in the ocean. All we can do, in this case, is affect the abundance of grey seals and we're not going to be able to control anything else. From an experimental perspective, this violates all of the things characteristic of an appropriately designed experiment."
In other words, he said, there would be no way of accurately determining the impact of such a cull.
The committee said the cull should start next year and it's recommending some kind of bounty system to compensate hunters, though it didn't say how much the bounty should be. The bounty would be needed because there is no market for grey seal pelts or other body parts.
Manning said the federal government should work on creating markets for grey seal products.
As well, the committee said the proposed cull should be subject to several conditions, including monitoring of the slaughter, training for hunters and enforcement of federal laws that prohibit inflicting pain on animals.
The annual Canadian commercial seal hunt has long focused on harp seals, which are estimated to number about nine million off the East Coast. But that business has plummeted in recent years after product bans were introduced by the European Union and Russia.
Acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea is under pressure from the fishing industry to do something about the stunted cod recovery in the Gulf, where there's only indirect scientific evidence suggesting hungry grey seals are to blame.
The cod in the area are on the verge of disappearing even though large-scale commercial fishing has been banned there since the early 1990s.
One member of the committee, Senator Mac Harb, issued a dissenting view, saying he voted against the report's recommendations because they ignore the Fisheries Department's own reports as well as research conducted by independent scientists.
Harb said cod stocks in the Gulf are disappearing because of overfishing. As well, he noted that other cod are recovering in areas where there are large seal populations.
"Canada has nothing to gain and much to lose should the government choose to follow the recommendations," he said. "Science in this country will be, once again, put on the back burner as political games are played with Canada’s oceans management policies."
The International Fund for Animal Welfare said the Senate's recommendation represents an unethical and risky gamble.
"Seals are being used as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the very serious issues facing fisheries such as bycatch and overfishing" spokeswoman Sheryl Fink said in a statement.
"A grey seal cull is nothing more than a short-term, knee-jerk response to appease the fishing industry that is based on emotion and the desire to win votes — not science."
A group of marine biologists at Dalhousie University in Halifax issued an open letter last fall that said a cull could produce unintended consequences, including further depletion of the cod.
In testimony before the committee earlier this year, Dalhousie biologist Boris Worm said: "It seems highly unlikely that the culling of seals would have a measurable benefit on the recovery of cod or indeed other groundfish … It could even have a negative effect."
Keith Ashfield, who temporarily stepped down last week as fisheries minister after suffering a heart attack, has shrugged off the biologists' accusations, saying "seals aren't vegetarians or vegans — they eat fish."
Ashfield has said a cull is supported by peer-reviewed research and would be subject to strict controls if approved.
However, the Fisheries Department released a study in October 2011 that concluded there's little evidence to show such slaughters actually work.
The review of scientific literature showed there has been very little study of marine and land-based culls around the world.
"Despite the widespread use of culling to manage carnivore populations with respect to food production, there is rather limited scientific evidence that such management is generally effective,'' wrote Fisheries Department researcher Don Bowen and Damian Lidgard of Dalhousie University.
Still, fishermen and seafood producers have been calling for a cull for years. They say the growing grey seal population is responsible for eating too many fish and wrecking fishing gear.
The Fisheries Department says there are 350,000 grey seals living off the Atlantic coast — a 30-fold increase since the 1960s. About 100,000 of these seals forage in the southern Gulf, about a third of them coming from Sable Island.
Even though the Fisheries Department says seal hunters are allowed to kill up to 60,000 grey seals annually to protect groundfish stocks, only a few hundred have been killed since 2009, mainly because there's no way to make money off their carcasses.
Rebecca Aldworth, an executive director of Humane Society International, said the Senate report is shameful political charade.
"The Senate is playing politics at the expense of science," she said in a statement.
"Having witnessed first-hand defenceless baby grey seals brutally beaten to death by sealers off Cape Breton, I am acutely aware of the cruelty that this proposed kill will involve."
She said decades of overfishing and fisheries mismanagement led to the collapse of cod stocks, not grey seals.
The Senate committee isn't the first group of legislators to recommend a cull.
In May 2007, an all-party Commons committee recommended that Sable Island be opened up to a grey seal hunt. The recommendation was ignored.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.