Quebec to study possible seal hunt on nature reserve near Magdalen Islands

The Quebec government will launch an environmental study to determine whether it should allow seal hunting on Brion Island, a nature reserve that is currently overrun with grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Biologists have sounded alarm about growing grey seal population on Brion Island in Gulf of St. Lawrence

There are an estimated 10,000 grey seals off Brion Island, an ecological reserve in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where hunting is illegal. (Elisa Serret/Radio-Canada)

The Quebec government is looking into the possibility of reintroducing the seal hunt on a nature reserve near the Magdalen Islands.

Environment Minister Isabelle Melançon announced on Thursday that Quebec's environmental review board (BAPE) will begin consultations in September, to determine whether grey seals should be hunted on the beaches of Brion Island.

"There needs to be a social consensus, and that will be the purpose of these public hearings," Melançon said.

The sealing industry in the region has lobbied over the past years to re-introduce the seal hunt on the uninhabited island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Biologists have also sounded the alarm, calling attention to a growing seal population that is estimated at more than 10,000 on the island, and warned about the impact on the local ecosystem.

Since the area was declared a protected ecological reserve in 1984, Melançon said she needs more information before taking action.

"Commercial hunting isn't normally done on nature reserves, so I want to know what the impact will be on other species," she said.

'Disappointing,' says sealers association

The association representing sealers in the region said while the announcement was encouraging, it falls short of expectations.

"For us it would have been much simpler to see an announcement for a pilot-project," said Jonathan Vigneau, president of the Association des chasseurs de phoques intra-Québec.

Vigneau said sealers could have collaborated with the government to hunt off the coast of Brion Island, and help gather data — that was what he expected to hear on Thursday.

A day earlier, Quebec announced it was investing $250,000 to help a local seal transformation facility, Total Océan.

Without access to Brion, Vigneau isn't sure the company will be able to get enough supplies for its line of seal byproducts, like seal oil.

The area was declared a protected ecological reserve in 1984. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

"We're losing another season because of the BAPE," said Vigneau.

With the study expected to continue until December, Vigneau said sealers will have to travel to Nova Scotia to hunt, instead of going 30 minutes away to Brion.

Developing nature reserve

​The Liberal MNA for Îles-de-la-Madeleine​, Germain Chevarie, said this announcement comes after years of work to support the industry in the region.

He said there is no way to tell how the 2018-2019 season will unfold, but he said sees this as a long-term opportunity.

"This winter there could be ice formations that float past the Magdalen Islands, we really don't know," he said.

Thursday's announcement also included a $30,000 investment to develop an educational program on Brion Island.

Melançon said the ministry will refurbish the dishevelled pavilion at the entrance of the nature reserve.

A committee will also be put in charge of developing visitor attractions on the island.

Brion Island, in the Magdalen Islands region, is an uninhabited island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Google Maps)

"I want children, parents and grandparents to visit the island together," said Melançon.

A group of local birdwatchers and biologists first called attention to decaying structures on the island in 2016.