Sent: Thursday, March 29, 2007 11:28 AM
Subject: [proprights] Seals or salmon: It's a tough choice

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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

Times Colonist

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sport fishing groups are concerned that harbour seals are destroying the salmon stocks in the Puntledge River near Courtenay.

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 neighbourhood.

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 part.

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 halt.

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 period.

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 salmon runs.

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 it.

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007

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