Membertou wants to revive seal hunt that's been put on ice
The First Nation is piloting a project to harvest and sell meat and byproducts from grey seals
Membertou First Nation wants to revive the seal hunt in Nova Scotia and find new ways to use seal byproducts.
The band has been piloting a grey seal harvest and is teaching community members how to humanely harvest the large mammals.
Over the last few years, a small number of seals were harvested with flippers and loins processed by a Maritime seafood company.
"We're hoping to expand that market and use more of the seal," said Hubert Nicholas, the band's director of fisheries.
"The pilot project is to eventually get to full utilization of the seal. And hopefully, here's a big vision item … nationally, we develop a product that's marketable to the world."
Nicholas said during the first year of the pilot only 20 seals were harvested, but this year's target is 500 seals.
Nicholas said the idea for the seal hunt came to him after hearing about a lack of forage fish, or small fish that are processed and used for fish food.
A grey seal harvest would solve multiple problems. Nicholas said it would turn the hungry mammals into farm feed, control the seal population and reduce the number of fish being eaten.
Controlling the population
"There needs to be some way to get down the population and you can't just go cull them," said Nicholas.
"A lot of people would prefer that. But why should we cull them when we could develop a market for them?"
Membertou recently won $100,000 and was named a semi-finalist in the Food Waste Reduction Challenge by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The federal program gives money to proposals that have the potential to stop food spoilage, and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nicholas said Membertou is interested in processing seal products using equipment from industries that are struggling to get by, such as mink farming. The community is currently just in the development phase of the project.
Ultimately, the goal of the project would be to move processing operations to Membertou and create more local jobs.
The most recent statistics from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans show a healthy grey seal population, according to Jeff Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie University.
Hutchings said that in the past, Atlantic Canadian seal harvests focused on harp seals that were collected for their skin and fur. But their sales plummeted after a ban on seal products was introduced in the European Union in 2009.
While there are still some seals that are hunted, Hutchings said harvest numbers are nothing compared to what they used to be.
"The hunt is much lower than it certainly was, historically, but it is still ongoing," Hutchings said.
"Some in the past have suggested and sought markets, I believe, for aphrodisiac-related products from grey seals. But in terms of the degrees to which the meat could be harvested or sold, or processed for other purposes, I think it's a bit of an open question."
Hutchings said while it's fair to say that grey seals do negatively affect the recovery of some fish stocks, they are not responsible for their collapse.
A grey seal hunt could be done similar to other fish harvests under the watchful eyes of scientists and managers, said Hutchings, without harming the long-term sustainability of the species.
With files from CBC Mainstreet Cape Breton