“Canada needs to act immediately to stop the disaster in the Salish Sea that is destroying our salmon and endangering our whales,” – Roy Jones, elder of the Haida Gwaii First Nation.
By Fabian Dawson
Pressure is mounting for a commercial seal harvest in British Columbia after the United States announced it will allow the killing of up to 920 sea lions a year in the Pacific North West to protect endangered wild fish stocks.
The American lethal removal program, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last month, for the first time allows American native tribes to kill sea lions that are threatening endangered salmon and steelhead runs to extinction.
Government authorities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are already allowed to lethally remove the predators after efforts are made to place captured animals in zoos or aquariums, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.
Milstein told SeaWestNews that the sea lion problem is especially acute at Willamette Falls and below Bonneville Dam where salmon and steelhead congregate before passing through the fish ladders to migrate and spawn upstream.
“The removal of specific sea lions from the Columbia River and specified tributaries will not impact the sustainability of the California sea lion population,” he said.
Since 1975, when the California sea lion population was estimated at 88,924 animals, their numbers have boomed, and it is estimated there are now approximately 257,631 animals, NOAA statistics show.
The allowable lethal removal of sea lions under the new law is set at no more than 10 percent of the Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level. The PBR is the number of animals that can be removed each year without affecting the sustainability of the marine mammal population as a whole.
Milstein said NOAA scientists have been working closely with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on the issue of controlling the exploding pinniped population which is decimating salmon runs and other wild fish stocks in the Pacific Northwest.
“Canada needs to act immediately to stop the disaster in the Salish Sea that is destroying our salmon and endangering our whales,” said Roy Jones, an elder of the Haida Gwaii First Nations and chairman of the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society (PBPS).
His society, which has the support of scores of First Nations across Canada and commercial and recreational fishing groups is calling for the controlled harvest of seals and sea lions, known as pinnipeds, for “First Nations socio-economic and cultural prosperity.”
“We are asking for a controlled, regulated and sustainable harvest and not a cull,” Jones, told SeaWestNews, adding, “we have harvested seals and sea lions since the dawn of our creation.”
“Our plan will create 4,000 jobs for economically depressed First Nations communities by utilizing 100 percent of the pinniped harvest…it will also protect wild salmon and other fish stocks and also ensure the vital food source for our endangered killer whales.”
The hunting of seals and sea lions has been banned on Canada’s West Coast for more than 40 years.
A spokesperson for DFO said the proposal from the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society to create a commercial fishery for pinnipeds under Canada’s New and Emerging Fisheries Policy will be discussed at a meeting on February 7 in Vancouver.
“However, there are no plans to authorize a large-scale fishery or cull of seals or sea lions at this time,” the spokesperson said in an email to SeaWestNews.
Ken Pearce, a PBPS director said the society and its supporters acknowledge that their plan for a commercial harvest of pinnipeds is a contentious issue and that emotions can run high.
“But people need to stay focused on the scientific data that shows the salmon and many shallow water fin fish populations are in trouble because of the seals and sea lions,” he said.
Citing studies, Pearce pointed out that seals and sea lions are eating more than 600 metric tons of chinook salmon – the preferred food source for Southern Resident Killer Whales – every year in Washington state waters alone.
The harbour seal population in the Salish Sea is estimated at about 80,000 today, up from 8,600 in 1975.
“We are producing 27 million chinook smolts a year in the Salish Sea (wild and hatchery) and the seals are consuming 24 million. Need I say more?”
“Our first goal is to bring the exploding pinniped population back into balance.”
But not everyone thinks that a controlled harvest of seals and sea lions in B.C. is the way to go.
The Coastal Ocean Research Institute believes that while a few localized populations of salmon might benefit from a commercial harvest, climate change, habitat destruction and overfishing are all bigger factors in the overall decline of wild fish stocks.
Others like the Conservancy Hornby Island is calling for a shutdown of the Pacific herring roe fishery scheduled to operate in the Strait of Georgia in March, to ensure there is enough food for whales and salmon.
The group does not address the explosive rise in the numbers of seals and sea lions in local waters as a factor to the herring fishery, which it describes as “worth little money and produces few jobs.”
Tom Sewid, a commercial fisherman and a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw group of Indigenous people described the isolated pockets of opposition to a sustainable seal harvest in B.C. as stemming from the “willful ignorance of the reality in the Salish Sea.”
“We need to educate those who do not know that a properly managed pinniped harvest is what needs to take place now,” Sewid told SeaWestNews.
Sewid said indigenous coastal tribes have always improvised and adapted to the ever-changing world they live in and the harvest of animals will always be an integral part of their way of life.
“We now see the forced protection of pinnipeds for many decades has allowed their populations to explode to alarming numbers creating an environmental disaster the likes never seen before.
“As we that know understand, the chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, pinks, steel head and other fin fish are more than just revenue to us all, it is life.”