No 'strong indications' harp seals are gobbling up all the northern cod: DFO scientist

DFO scientist John Brattey says there's no scientific support for the notion that harp seals are inhibiting the northern cod stock comeback.

Belief widespread, but needs further study, says John Brattey

A harp seal looks towards a seal boat from Newfoundland as he sits on a ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, P.E.I. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It's a widespread belief in fishery circles, but one DFO scientist says that for now, you just can't assume that it's true.

John Brattey says the scientific evidence does not support the notion that harp seal populations are hindering the rebuilding of northern cod stocks by gobbling up all the fish.

Brattey admits it's not easy to get good data on the diets of harp seals, but says what studies have been performed do not support the notion.

DFO scientist John Brattey says the strong growth of cod biomass, despite the presence of a big seal population, is some evidence that seals are not interfering. (Hans-Petter Fjeld )

Some evidence can be found just by looking at the recovery rates in the last decade, he said.

"[There has been] a substantial increase. In fact, the rates of growth have been quite high," Brattey told CBC Radio's The Broadcast

"This has happened during a period when the seal population has been at or near an all-time high, so that information doesn't jive with the notion that seals are a major impediment to recover, at least in the recent period."

More study needed

Brattey said some research has shown that capelin availability and fishing are bigger drivers of northern cod stocks.

"We often find that seals are blamed for a lot of things," he said, who noted the preferred diet of costal harp seals seems to be capelin.

"There is some conflicting information out there, and I certainly believe it does need to be looked at more, but at the moment we don't have strong indications that harp seals are having a big impact on cod recovery."