Bad science: harp seals' future on thin ice

Feature story - 10 March, 2005
Off Canada's east coast, harp seals are giving birth to their offspring. But their future may be short-lived, as Canada prepares to announce what could be the biggest seal hunt ever. It's a hunt justified by inaccurate, incomplete and out-of-date science that could threaten the survival of the harp seal.

Hundreds of thousand of seals are being killed today with no clear understanding of the ecological impacts.

It is only a matter of days before the Canadian government signals thebeginning of what may be the biggest seal hunt in history. 350,000seals could die this year as part of a three-year government program tokill a million seals.

When undertaking the largest hunt of marine mammals on the globe youwould think the Canadian government has a rock-solid justificationbacked up by sound figures. After all, they would not hunt so manyseals if this threatened the long-term survival of the species, right?

Wrong. Analysis of the justification of the hunt in our report"Canadian Seal Hunt: No Management and No Plan", highlights a number ofgaping holes in the government's case:

  • Canadian scientistsonly count the population every five years -- so any declines inpopulation based on new birth counts could take up to 15 years orlonger to be detected and verified.
  • The methods used by Canadato monitor the hunt quotas fail to count seals that are wounded butescape to die later, seals killed by illegal hunting and those that arekilled for their organs and then discarded.
  • Future populationestimates don't consider other changes, like climate change, that couldadversely affect the seal population. Changes in sea-ice can have aprofound impact on the feeding and breeding habits of seals.
  • Other smaller hunts and threats to seals are also ignored when estimating future seal populations.

Mhairi Dunlop from Greenpeace International explains why the huntshould not continue: "It is irresponsible and scientificallyunjustifiable of the Canadian government to allow the killing of nearlya million seals when their own scientists are unable to accuratelysubstantiate the size of the herd, the actual number of seals taken inthe hunt or the impact of external pressures like climate change on thehealth of the population". The Canadian government has a long historyof mismanaging marine ecosystems, yielding to the short-term interestsof the fishing and sealing industries at great cost to jobs and marinelife."

Don't worry, we know what we are doing

Canadian government claims that the seal herd is "healthy andabundant" and "at a level where there are no conservation concerns,"are inaccurate at best and ironically reminiscent of past claimsconcerning the Atlantic Cod. The world's most abundant fishery, on theCanadian Grand Banks, was fished to oblivion with the help ofgovernment subsidies. Rather than learn from this mistake thegovernment seems to be repeating the same sorry tale with seals in theplace of cod.

Government scientists have produced data that is overly optimistic,inaccurate and out of date. There is simply no justification for thishunt. If Canada really takes the precautionary principle seriously thenit should err on the side of conservation before the seals becomeanother casualty of Canada's gross mismanagement of fragile ecosystemsand species.

More info:

For in depth info read the press release and full report.