Nova Scotia

Grey seal population growing, but not nearly as much as in recent decades

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the grey seal population continues to grow in Atlantic Canada, with the vast majority living and thriving on Sable Island off Nova Scotia.

Population growth has slowed to about 4 per cent annually, down from decades of 13 per cent increases

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says grey seals take bait from lobster traps, fish from gillnets and longlines and break fishing gear. (Sarah Medill/University of Saskatchewan)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the grey seal population in Atlantic Canada continues to grow, but at a slower rate than in previous years.

DFO's 2016 stock assessment estimates the population is 424,000, with the vast majority living and thriving on Sable Island off Nova Scotia. The assessment puts the Sable Island and coastal Nova Scotia colonies at 380,300, while the Gulf of St. Lawrence herd is pegged at 44,100.

After decades of growth at 13 per cent, the department says the population growth has slowed to around four per cent overall.

In their first attempt to estimate pup production since 2010, scientists carried out plane, helicopter, drone and visual surveys of all breeding colonies.

A drone captured images of grey seals on Sable Island, N.S. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

It's believed 83,000 pups were produced on Sable Island in 2016. Pup production for Sable Island and coastal Nova Scotia is increasing at an annual rate of five per cent, the assessment states.

Pup production has remained stable on Hay Island off Scatarie Island, Cape Breton, but has increased in southwest Nova Scotia.

DFO says a new grey seal colony discovered in 2015 on Red Island in the Bras d'Or lakes produced 41 pups last year.

'Nuisance' licence to kill 

The huge grey seal colonies are often blamed by commercial fishermen for the slow recovery of groundfish stocks.

The department has issued a large number of nuisance licences, mostly in Nova Scotia, to reduce the grey seal population.

It estimates a total of 3,732 grey seals were killed in the region in 2016, but that number comes with a caveat.

A new DFO report estimates there were 83,000 pups produced on Sable Island in 2016. (Bill Freedman/Dalhousie University)

"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."

Big appetites

DFO says grey seals take bait from lobster traps, fish from gillnets and longlines and break fishing gear.

Male gray seals can weigh as much as 350 kilograms.

The value of the damage throughout Atlantic Canada has not been quantified in recent years. In 2010, DFO estimated grey seals ate 3,000 to 11,000 tonnes of cod per year off eastern Nova Scotia.

DFO's 2016 grey seal population assessment is well below the 505,000 estimate made in 2014.

The department says that is because it updated its population model to reflect new estimates of female survival, data on removals and pup production estimates.