07 March 2005

Paul Watson: cod aren't cute enough

As tiresome as it is to endure yet again another round of the annual harp seal campaigns by people like Paul Watson, it is clear that in Watson's case, his brief - dare I suggest half-hearted - efforts at dealing with the global decimation of world foodstocks by fishing nations is not as lucrative as flogging the annual seal "slaughter". That's the only reason Watson is back clubbing Canadians.

Supper this evening was interrupted by Watson and actor Richard Dean Anderson being interviewed by CBC Newsworld from Charlottetown on the upcoming international day of protest against sealing. Watson mentioned that there is a planned boycott of Canadian seafood products (not related to seals) as a way of bringing the matter home to Canadians.

Perhaps Mr. Watson would dare to bring the same pressure against nations like Russia, Spain, and Portugal to name a few.

In the course of the interview, Mr. Watson claimed, among other things that:

- there are fewer than five million harp seals, therefore the current hunt is a danger to their survival; and,
- ending the seal hunt will actually be beneficial to cod stocks.

Let's look at some objective evidence and some scientifically based observations.

1. Harp seal population. It is generally accepted that the current population of harp seals stands at about five million animals. Check this link and this one for confirmation. Even an appallingly biased piece written for the New York Times last spring acknowledged that current seal populations have tripled since 1970 to almost five million animals.

While anyone can quibble about the rough estimates, it is clear that harp seal populations in the northwest Atlantic have been increasing since the cod moratorium in 1992. This comes despite an annual total allowable catch for harp seals of levels near the current one (350, 000 animals).

In the interview, Watson made a claim that in previous times (i.e. before European arrival in the New World) harp populations were approximately 20 million animals. He can cite no source for this claim, of course, least of all a verifiable one.

2. More seals would be good for cod stocks. Watson made the claim that seals prey more on species that prey in turn on cod than on cod themselves. Therefore, an increase in seal populations would benefit cod.

The very best that can be said for this claim is the conclusion reached by Bill Montevecchi in 1997. Dr. Montevecchi concluded that it is almost impossible to determine the impact of seals on cod either beneficially or detrimentally since both creatures function in a complex ecosystem: "To assess seal predation in isolation from the complex ecosystem of which both seals and cod are part is both simple-minded and ecologically ignorant."

The worst that can be said is that Mr. Watson's claims are indeed simple-minded and ecologically ignorant.

Harps feed on many species, although once matured, Atlantic cod (gadus morhua) have very few predators and certainly none that a seal will tangle with. Given that the species which do prey on juvenile cod are also subjected to heavy predation by humans, growing seal population is actually more likely to increase pressure on cod stocks. This is not an excuse for an increased seal harvest, rather it points out the faulty logic of Mr. Watson's argument.

Mr. Watson makes no observation on the paradox that despite increased annual TAC, seal stocks have actually increased in the past 15 years. He simply denies that seal populations are healthy and that current human predation - even if one takes worst case scenarios for unreported predation - still amounts to less than 10% of the seal population and remains less than the typical annual seal pup yield.

Logically, if seals have more young than the total predation, the population will grow. More importantly, though, Mr. Watson and others fail to identify the impact that commercial fishing for groundfish stocks had on seal populations through accidental seal kills (caught in nets etc). Coupled with annual harvests, it would appear that the combined pressure reduced seal populations dramatically. However, as fishing activities declined and finally were curtail, especially in areas where fishing and seal habitats overlapped, seal populations have actually been under less total predation than they were before 1992.

A balanced, ecological approach to fisheries management considers both the human and animal components of the activity. None of the anti-sealing protestors take into account the legitimate, traditional and economically important role that harvesting seals plays in the livelihoods of those who harvest the ocean's bounty for a living.

No sensible management can come from Mr. Watson's efforts. Then again, Mr. Watson isn't interested in what is ecologically important. If he was, he would have long ago abandoned seal hunt protests and taken to engaging the world in a protest against the systematic destruction of fish stocks that have fed the world for generations.

Unfortunately, Mr. Anderson and others with high profiles, deep pockets, sincere convictions and limited information would not write cheques to save cod and could scarcely be counted on to appear on camera kissing a turbot.

As for me, I'll base my opinions about environmental management on the views of people who know what they are talking about. That means when I see Paul Watson on television, I'll be clicking him off in favour of watching reruns of MacGyver and Stargate SG-1 where I can Mr. Anderson doing what he does best.