Nfld. & Labrador·Reporter's Notebook

A crab dinner fit for a seal: What to make of what winds up in seal stomachs

It's not just a foul sight, and smell. As Garrett Barry writes, it's also another front in a battle that some fisherman have launched against DFO.

On the wharf in Fleur de Lys, N.L., Garrett Barry finds that the diet of seals is a fiery issue

Natasha Rideout, left, and Brad Rideout examine the contents of a bearded seal's stomach on a wharf in Fleur de Lys, N.L. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

We agreed on one thing: it was a repulsive sight.

I was standing with Brad Rideout on the wharf in Fleur de Lys, N.L., watching his daughter, Natasha, knife open a bearded seal's stomach. I was invited because the Rideouts and their business partners have something they want all of Newfoundland and Labrador to see.

To me, it was a soupy mix of half-digested crab, stringy legs peppered with small bits of scallop and shrimp, slopping out of the six seal stomachs.

It was a pink and brown soup that produced a distinct sloshing sound. The crab bits — or what remained of them — were darker in some of the stomachs and wetter in others, in accordance with how long ago they were eaten.

Some of the stomachs had full, recognizable crab — even a layman like I could see them. Another was more liquid than solid.

These are the contents of a bearded seal's stomach that was cut open to display on a wharf in Fleur de Lys. To reporter Garrett Barry, it was a soupy mix of semi-digested crab. To fish harvester Brad Rideout, it's the sight of missed opportunity, and thousands of dollars that will not be earned. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

To fish harvester and processor Brad Rideout, it was the sorry sight of missed opportunity.

"What is it, to look at that?' I asked.

"That's thousands of dollars," he replied. "That's money. Money gone to waste."

Wharf-style politics

I wasn't invited for a free lesson on seal digestion: this was wharf-style politics. 

The Rideouts are betting on the power of an image and the strength of social media. They believe my camera's presence can drive home their argument: They say seals play a huge part in slowing the growth of weak crab stocks. They also think its high time the federal government acknowledges it.

"Only this week, Labrador got a report back from scientists that their female crab is declining [and] they don't know why. Well, we know why!" he said. "They are in the stomachs of these seals, and DFO will not let people know that they are in there."

WATCH | Garrett Barry reports from Fleur de Lys. Caution: This video contains material some may find disturbing: 

What do seals eat? Debate revived by discovery of crab in seal stomachs

2 years ago
Duration 2:44
Garrett Barry reports from Fleur de Lys, where a local company is convinced seals are hurting the crab fishery

"They're 100 per cent wrong. Whether they know it or not, here's the proof."

Rideout has skin in both sides of the game: He's a co-owner of the Phocalux seal plant in Fleur de Lys and he also owns a crab vessel. More seal hunting and more crab to fish would be a win-win.

A fisherman in his full career cannot fish all these crab.- Natasha Rideout

But a quick look at online fishing forums shows he has support. Former MP Ryan Cleary, who tried for years to get a breakaway fish harvesters' union certified, has also taken up his cause.

The problem is exponential, according to Natasha Rideout, who works in the family business. Not only are the seals eating crab, they are eating female crab — and all the crab eggs that could become future female crab. And so on.

Impact on crab stocks 

In that light, the seal stomach stew becomes an expensive meal.

Brad Rideout estimated that just one of those half-digested female crab could eventually be worth almost $400,000. Crab lay thousands of eggs. Sure, not all of them would survive, he said, but enough of them would to make an impact.

Brad Rideout owns a seal plant in Fleur de Lys, one of the few that still operate in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"What you are seeing here — a fisherman in his full career cannot fish all these crab, if they came to be," Natasha Rideout added.

Brad Rideout believes he's proven that seals pose a problem. His solution is to hunt more of them.

Ideally, he said, they'd be sold, with government support to find and cultivate markets for the products. But if they can't be sold, he'd support a cull too.

But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' take on the seal stomachs is very different: yes, it says, bearded seals eat their share of crab — and anything else at the bottom of the ocean floor — but there aren't that many of them, particularly compared to harp seals. 

"They're not common. They're relatively rare — not an abundant species at all," said Garry Stenson, head of DFO's marine mammal section in St. John's. 

Harp seals, which are much more numerous off Newfoundland and Labrador, he said, don't seem to like the crab all that much.

Rideout shows an undigested female crab and the roe inside. The crab was picked out of a seal's stomach. According to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a female snow crab can produce between 16,000 to 160,000 eggs in a spring. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"The thing to remember about any time you get reports of a seal, or a couple of seals … eating this or they're eating that, these are all snapshots," he told CBC Radio's The Broadcast. 

"In order to get a sense of their overall eating, you really need a thousand snapshots here or a thousand snapshots there.… It's not uncommon to get a stomach with something in it, but by itself it doesn't tell you much about what the population overall is eating."

Listen | Hear the full interviews on The Broadcast in the audio player below:

Harvesters have long blamed seals for the depletion of fish and crab stocks. We take you to a show and tell of seal stomachs on the wharf on the Baie Verte peninsula. Department of Fisheries and Oceans responds.

Trust is failing

His conclusion is that even with bearded seals factored in, there's just not that much seal consumption of crab.

The processors on the Baie Verte Peninsula don't buy it. For one, they believe that there are more bearded seals than DFO is letting on. And it's clear, when listening to Brad Rideout speak, that there's not much trust.

"The stomachs is never opened in front of us," he said, whenever a harvester reports that they've found new proof. "DFO science takes the stomachs back to the Marine Institute and opens them behind closed doors."

In an emailed statement, a DFO spokesperson replied that stomach analysis is a "slow and messy process," involving stomachs, intestines,and a series of sieves. It needs a lab setting, they wrote.

"There have been times where we have shared videos of marine mammal necropsies through social media and media interviews, and can look for opportunities to do this in the future if it would be of interest," added spokesperson Jen Rosa-Bian.

In late February, DFO researchers released a new stock assessment for snow crab near Newfoundland and Labrador. It showed "modest" improvements in most areas, but the stock still hasn't fully rebounded from record lows.

On the wharf in Fleur de Lys, Natasha Rideout reminded me that the stomachs in front of me represented just one or two meals by the bearded seals. When I called harvester Trevor Jones, who brought them in, he said the population of bearded seals is growing fast.

So across the ocean, there are a lot of seal stomachs. And when they are cut open, it's hard to look.

For a lot of reasons.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander, N.L.

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