Nova Scotia

Canada to ban 'nuisance seals' killing to keep access to U.S. market

In an effort to maintain access to the lucrative U.S. seafood market, Canada will abolish permits that allow the killing of so-called “nuisance seals" by commercial fishermen and aquaculture, CBC News has learned.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada plans to eliminate nuisance seal licences

A young harbour seal lounges near Cundy's Harbor, Maine. By Jan. 1, 2022, all countries with fisheries interacting with marine mammals that export to the U.S. will have to demonstrate they have marine mammal protections that are the same or of comparable 'effectiveness' to measures taken in the U.S. (Pat Wellenbach/The Canadian Press)

Canada will abolish permits that allow the killing of "nuisance seals" by commercial fishermen and aquaculture in an effort to maintain access to the lucrative U.S. seafood market, CBC News has learned.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada plans to eliminate nuisance-seal licences. Earlier this spring, the department told commercial fisheries associations that nuisance permits will no longer be issued. Canadian fish farms voluntarily stopped killing seals in 2018.

"DFO is making this change in order to ensure continued access to the U.S. fish and seafood market, a market worth about $5 billion annually to Canada," DFO spokesperson Benoit Mayrand said.

By Jan. 1, 2022, all countries with fisheries interacting with marine mammals that export to the U.S. will have to demonstrate they have marine mammal protections that are the same or of comparable effectiveness to measures taken in the U.S..

DFO intends to adopt regulatory language aligned with the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act's import provisions, Mayrand said.

Scotland also banning practice

The U.S. exempts killing marine mammals under specific circumstances, such as where it is imminently necessary to protect human health and safety, and under the Good Samaritan exemption, where the humane dispatch of a seal will avoid serious injury, additional injury, or death to a seal entangled in fishing gear or debris.

DFO said it will post its plans for public comment in coming weeks.

Earlier this month, Scotland announced it will eliminate permits to shoot nuisance seals. Scotland is also keenly aware that market access is at stake.

Mairi Gougeon, the Scottish minister responsible for that portfolio, told the Scottish parliament that its new rules will match the U.S. rules.  

"It will ensure that we can still export farmed fish to the United States of America in future. That is one of our most important markets; it was worth £178 million (about $301 million) in 2019," she said on June 17. 

Canada's aquaculture industry already on board

Tim Kennedy, president and CEO of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, wrote to DFO in a letter dated Dec. 21, 2018.

"The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance would like to state our members' commitment to 'no intentional mammal kill' practices in our seafood farming operations within Canada. We maintain an exception for the very rare possibility of the endangerment of human health, as per the exception in the MMPA legislation," Kennedy wrote.

The association says it represents 95 per cent Canadian fish farms and shellfish operations.

"This was quite a major step of the Canadian industry to move forward and make this commitment because the population of seals on the East Coast and sea lions on the West Coast have really increased dramatically," Kennedy told CBC News.

He said producers are now using steel-hardened nets to keep seals out.

'A critical market issue'

About 80 per cent of the Atlantic salmon grown in Canada gets exported to the U.S..

"This is a critical market-access issue. So with the time being right and with the industry moving in this direction anyway, the formalization of the commitment, I think, made a lot of sense," Kennedy said.

DFO says in 2018, 66 seals were reported killed under nuisance-seal licences in Atlantic Canada. In 2019, 95 were reported killed.

But that may be an underestimation of how many are killed by fishermen.

On the East Coast, huge grey seal colonies are often blamed by commercial fishermen for the slow recovery of groundfish stocks.

Fishermen not pleased but 'we will have to live with it'

Leonard Leblanc of the Gulf of Nova Scotia Fishermen's Coalition says fishermen "are concerned and not pleased nuisance licences are being removed."

"Seals cause a lot of damage to our gear. I've seen them go into bait fish nets and all that's left are the heads from the fish. They also damage lobster traps trying to get at the bait."

Still, LeBlanc reluctantly accepts what Canada has done.

"It might be some pain that we have to live with to keep that market because the MMPA is very explicit," LeBlanc said from Chéticamp. "The guidelines have to be followed or the product will not enter the U.S. market, so it's not a negotiation. It's being imposed on us. Unfortunately, we will have to live with it."

In a 2016 assessment of the grey seal population, DFO scientists estimated a total of 3,732 grey seals were killed in the region — but that number came with a caveat.

"Nuisance-seal licences are issued to fishermen that report seals causing damage to fishing gear or catches," said DFO's assessment. "They are required to report the number of seals they have removed, but most fishermen do not provide this information."

A nuisance-seal licence is different from a commercial-harvest seal licence and the proposed amendments will have no impacts on the directed seal harvest, DFO said.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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