Why fishermen welcome seal cull


As Canada continues its controversial seal cull, Arthur Reynolds argues we need a professional, humane cull in Irish waters

When the cold Labrador current meets the Gulf Stream off the coast of Canada, the resulting upwelling brings up nutrients from deeper waters that stimulate fish life. This has created one of the North Atlantic's most important fisheries, and also feeds a huge seal population.

This is the kernel of a controversy that is running at the moment - should the seals be conserved or should the human populations of the fish-dependent communities on the North American east coast be allowed to live a reasonable life?

Anybody who has visited these ports after the 1960s, when a severe restriction on sealing was in operation, will have noticed the dilapidated condition of the fishermen's homes and boats while the seals gorged on the stocks. The seal harvesters had been portrayed as barbarians and murderers.

But the real culprits were clearly identified by fishermen and the thousands of factory workers who benefited from Canada's fish export trade, mainly to the US. They were the harp seals that had, for sentimental reasons, been allowed to multiply. Now the situation has changed: Canada's department of fisheries, after thorough study, is allowing 975,000 seals to be culled between 2003 and 2005. This will not wipe out the seal population, estimated at 3.85 million in the area, but will reduce it. Nearby Greenland culls about 100,000 seals annually.

But Canada is not the only place where an excessive seal population presents a problem. Many Irish fishermen are furious at seeing media pictures of seals being released into the Irish Sea in north Dublin from a seal sanctuary. They know the damage that seals do to stocks and are aware that seals release stomach worms that can get into cod.

"Vermin", is what one fisherman called the seals while standing at the pier in Skerries, Co Dublin. He was thinking of the effects of seals on the coast he works, largely from the colonies on Lambay and other east coast islands. A few years ago, an angling competition in Dublin Bay produced just one edible fish, and the seal population, not fishing, was mainly to blame.

Slow-swimming fish such as cod and salmon are particular targets for seals. Salmon anglers complain that netting is wiping out the salmon, but a 1960 study by British biologists revealed that 80 per cent of the stomach contents of seals sampled was salmon and 18 per cent cod.

The bitterness Irish inshore fishermen feel about grey seals is evident. I have seen fishermen gathering after Mass on a shore in Co Donegal firing .22 bullets at seals resting on a faraway sandbank. Some bring guns to sea to stop seals following their boats out to where nets are set, as the mammals attack the captured fish. One bite and a fish is unsaleable. Fish farm nets are frequently attacked.

Scotland also has a seal problem and joint studies estimate that 2,000 seals leave that area annually to visit the Irish north-west and west coasts. Culls are allowed in some Scottish areas where salmon fishing is important, but an official approach was made to Scotland by Norway two years ago to seek a general cull. In Norway, seal meat is canned for pet food.

Hamish Morrison, chief executive of the Scottish Fisheries Federation at the time, told me: "We have now reached a position where our massive seal population undermines the well-being of fishing communities." He said that each seal eats 7 kilo of cod each day, and that total Scottish consumption of fish amounted to 200,000 tonnes by grey seals and 50,000 tonnes by harbour seals.

Why, then, has Ireland not carried out a professional, humane cull? It is because so many voting pet-lovers regard them as forlorn doggies of the sea. It is not for want of evidence: in April 1997, following meticulous research in Irish waters, particularly in Co Mayo, An Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) produced a 74-page report for the European Commission DG XIV, entitled The Physical Interaction Between Grey Seals and Fishing Gear.

In the case of Co Mayo, damage by seals to the spring cod fishery was estimated in the report at more than 10 per cent over a three-year period and research in Dingle showed that the hake fishery suffered between 4 per cent and 7.7 per cent. Pollack, haddock and ling stocks were also affected.

BIM was and is aware that orderly repayment of State loans for inshore boat purchase is seriously affected by the reduction in fishermen's catches.

If humankind, with its soaring populations, is to survive in a healthy way, changes in eating habits must take place, and fish has been proven beyond doubt as the best of protein sources. With many world fishing grounds under severe pressure, more realistic management of global stocks must take place.

So in future, more serious attention will have to be given to Antarctic grounds where, broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough tells us, there are something like 10 million of just one seal species, the crabeater seal. In fact, these mis-named animals mainly eat krill, a small shrimp which Russian scientists have claimed will someday be a major human food source.

Arthur Reynolds was editor of The Irish Skipper, Journal of the Fishing Industry, for 27 years