No cod? Blame the seals!

Feature story - 24 February, 2005
As warnings from nature go they don't come much starker than the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery in Newfoundland due to overfishing. The cod, and thousands of jobs that depended on them, disappeared virtually overnight. Now because the cod stocks have failed to recover, seals are being blamed and hunted in record numbers.

Intensive factory fishing wiped out cod stocks on the Canadian Grand Banks. Now seals are being killed in record numbers in a hunt justified by the bogus claim that seals are preventing cod stocks recover.

Why did one of the world's most productive fishing grounds collapse?Why were there seemingly plenty of cod one year and none the next? Howcome more seals are being killed? The answer is a mix of history, greedand one bad decision after another.

The Newfoundland Grand Banks, off the east coast of Canada, used tobe famous as amazingly productive fishing grounds. The first Europeanexplorers described the waters as being so full of cod you just had tolower a basket into the water to bring up it up full of cod. In thecenturies that followed, abundant fish stocks drew many people toNewfoundland. Small inshore boats took sustainable amounts of cod forcenturies up to the 1950s. The bounty of the Grand Banks was enough forlocal and small-scale fishing and a healthy population of millions ofharp seals.

Invasion of the fishing factories

Allthis changed for the worse during the 1950's and 60's. Technologicaladvances in trawler design and power were modelled on the factorywhaling ships that had devastated the last remaining whale populations.These huge factory trawlers came from distant countries attracted bythe seemingly endless bounty of the fishery. With huge nets they couldhoover up massive quantities of fish, quickly processing anddeep-freezing the catch, working around the clock in all but the worstweather conditions. In an hour they can haul up as much as 200 tons offish, twice as much as a typical 16th century ship would have caught inan entire season.

The cod catch steadily increased to 800,000 tonnes in 1968 but thiswas the peak of the clearly unsustainable catches. By 1975 the annualcatch had fallen by more than 60 percent. Catches of other fish werealso plummeting under the relentless fishing pressure. This forcedCanada to extend its fishing limit for foreign vessels from 12 miles to200 miles from its coast.

Thinking big

Rather than using this rule to reduce fishing pressure on the codthe Canadian Government and fishing industry saw a massive cash bonanza- now exclusively for Canadians. Huge investments and governmentsubsides poured into the construction of the same destructive factorytrawlers so big money could be made from the cod. In the short termcatches rose again and the industry prospered. But beneath the wavesthe huge trawl nets were not only scooping up cod and anything in theirpath but the heavy gear was ploughing up the seabed and destroying thedelicate ecosystem. The Grand Banks ecosystem was already on borrowedtime.

Asthe cod declined the factory trawlers used powerful sonar and satellitenavigation to target the few remaining large shoals of cod, especiallyduring the breeding season when they gather in large numbers. Againshort-term expediency was winning out over the long-term health of thefishery.

During the 1980s cod catches remained steady but that was becauselarger, more powerful and sophisticated vessels were chasing the fewremaining fish. Traditional inshore fishermen had already noticed theircatches declining but the government preferred to listen to theindustrial fishing companies which claimed there was no problem.Scientific warnings in the late 80s went unheeded because any cut incatches would cause politically unacceptable job losses.

By 1992 the levels of Northern cod were the lowest ever measured.The government was forced to close the fishery, throwing 30,000 peopleout of work and devastating many fishing communities. Despite the ban,stocks have yet to recover and it is uncertain if they will fullyrecover given the changes wrought on the Grand Banks ecosystem bydecades of industrial fishing.

Enter the new villain - seals!

Having overseen and subsidised the destruction of the Grand Banksfishery the Canadian Government now pays out billions of dollars oftaxpayers' money in social security to out-of-work fishermen andcommunities in Newfoundland. Rather than recognise that it caused thecollapse of the ecosystem it has been busy looking for a new scapegoat.

Because cod stocks have failed to recover the popular government"common sense" claim is this: it must be because harp seals are eatingall the cod and preventing their recovery.

Seals make an expedient target to blame for politicians. TheCanadian government increased the seal hunt quota during the 1990's andin 2003 announced both the permanent closure of the cod fishery and ahuge increase in the hunt to 350,000 seals.

The simplistic claim that seals eat too many cod is the same flawedargument (whales are eating too much fish) that whaling nations now useto call for the resumption of commercial whaling. Checking a few simplefacts exposes this sham. Cod make up only about 3 percent of theaverage harp seal's diet. That diet also includes species that eatyoung cod. There is no science to back the claim that seals arepreventing the recovery of the cod. In 1995, 97 scientists signed apetition on the subject: "All scientific efforts to find an effect ofseal predation on Canadian groundfish stocks have failed to show anyimpact. Overfishing remains the only scientifically demonstratedconservation problem related to fish stock collapse."

The human greed that caused the collapse of the cod fishery shouldnot be an excuse to start pushing another species in the same ecosystemto dangerously low levels, especially when no one knows for sure whateffects this will have.

You don't manage an ecosystem by beating it to death.

Take action:

Sign IFAW's million signature petition against sealing.

More info:

Detailed info on the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery.

Scientific quotes against the misleading seals eat cod argument.

How "Factory Fishing" Decimated Newfoundland Cod.

IFAW's campaign against the Canadian Seal Hunt.