Seals or salmon: It's
a tough choice
Puntledge River cull would be controversial,
but it might be the best way to find a balance
Sport fishing groups are concerned that harbour seals are
destroying the salmon stocks in the Puntledge River near
Several dozen seals take up residence at the mouth of the river
each spring and catch young salmon coming downstream to the sea. They also
intercept spawning fish during the fall run.
There are fears the chinook fishery on the Puntledge, already
dangerously low, could be wiped out. That's led to calls for the federal
government to permit a limited cull of seals in the immediate
That seal numbers have expanded rapidly in recent years is not in
question. Surveys in the mid-1990s showed a 10-fold increase over the
preceding 20 years, throughout the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. It's
likely the population has grown even more since then.
Part of the reason is believed to lie in the declining number of
killer whales in the area. Orcas are one of the seal's main predators. But
the growing desire to protect marine animals also plays a
Seals have been killed on the West Coast, by native groups for
food or by fishboat operators as pests, as far back as records have been
kept. But in the early 1970s, the federal government called a
The practice of issuing bounties was stopped. Culls were limited
to exceptional circumstances. The clampdown helped a number of endangered
species, like Steller's sea lions, recover. But the huge expansion of
harbour seals, which are not endangered, also stems from this
Nevertheless, opinion is divided as to whether a limited cull
should be allowed. When the Department of Fisheries last permitted a
thinning of the seal population in the Puntledge estuary in 1997 and 1998
there was an improvement in chinook stocks.
But animal rights groups and some marine biologists are opposed.
They point out that seals also keep down other fish species, like hake,
that prey on young salmon. And they complain that man-made intrusions,
including over-fishing and aquaculture, are as much to blame for depleted
But while those are fair points, dwelling on past mistakes or our
lack of foresight won't change the essential math now. Seal numbers have
expanded, for whatever reason, to the point where they may wipe out an
already endangered stock of wild chinook.
Perhaps, in a properly balanced marine system, a natural remedy
would occur. But here, no such solution is in sight. The choice appears to
be between thinning the seals or losing the salmon. Fisheries officers are
meeting with local groups to discuss options.
No doubt opposing voices will be heard. But public policy must be
hard-headed as well as soft-hearted.
A difficult decision is needed. Let's get on with
Colonist (Victoria) 2007