Saving fish by leaving them alone
I write in response to the Dave Gillis letter of Sept. 30, "Seals, science and culls." In his letter, Gillis points to a Canadian Science Advisory Council report which advised that "grey seals were likely the greatest contributor to high cod mortality in the southern gulf." He goes on to say that "the Atlantic cod stock in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence is severely depleted (and) the major factor limiting recovery (of cod) is the unusually high mortality rate of large fish in this population." These statements all sound well and good as long as they remain outside of any historical context. However, when placed in the context the history of commercial fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a different picture emerges.
Commercial fishing by Europeans and their descendants has been conducted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since the early 16th century, increasing slowly as technology permitted over the following 400 years. This situation changed dramatically with the technological advances in the mid-late 1940s. The ensuing 60-year period saw unprecedented, often government-sanctioned overfishing, combined with ongoing marine environment degradation and untold destruction of commercial and non-commercial species. Now we are being told that the scapegoat for all this mismanagement and overfishing are grey seals.
So what do we know about grey seals? Well, we know they lived sustainably with cod and many other ocean species for at least 10,000 years - since the last ice age. We also know that the major predator of seals are sharks - the apex predator in the ocean food web. We also know that sharks have been almost wiped out over the past 60 years due to human overfishing.
Similarly, what do we know about cod sustainability and recovery in the Northwest Atlantic and particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence? Well, we were told in the 1950s and 1960s that the resource was inexhaustible. Then we were told in the 1970s and 1980s that it could be sustainability managed by yearly quotas. Then we were told in the 1990s that, because of cold water, it needed to go under a moratorium. Now we are being told cod is not recovering because of too many seals. Of course, confounding this, we have the situation on the Scotian Shelf where seals are in abundance on Sable Island and cod are showing signs of recovery only 30 or 40 miles away.
Unfortunately, despite single species quota management, traditional commercial groundfish stocks have not recovered from the overfishing of the past 60 years. To understand the reasons for the lack of recovery, we should look beyond our own situations to see how other fishing nations have dealt with collapse and what steps they have taken to bring about recovery. There are several places around the world which are experiencing recovery of their traditional commercial fish stocks.
In most, if not all, cases there appears to be a common thread - the identification and closure of vulnerable marine ecosystems and the closure of large areas to all fishing activity.
While the goal is to recover commercial fish stocks, the process involves protecting and permitting the natural ocean systems to recover on their own. This means severely limiting human contact with much of the ocean's ecosystems. It has been shown time and again that we cannot "manage" commercial fish stocks or marine ecosystems. However we can manage the levels of human interaction with oceans and ocean ecosystems.
As it stands now, aside from the Marine Protected Area in the St. Lawrence River, there are virtually no areas closed to commercial fishing and other human activities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Contrast this with other North Atlantic fishing nations such as the United States, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. All have established large Marine Protected Areas, instituted vigorous small fish protocols, and have taken steps to protect spawning grounds and nursery areas.
None of these management tools has ever been employed consistently over long periods in the Gulf of St. Lawrence - and the results speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the Canadian government continues to resist taking steps to close overfished and degraded marine environments.
Such indecision in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is clear indication that we have lost our way and something is very wrong with our priorities and vision for our oceans.
Fred Winsor is conservation chair with Sierra Club Canada Atlantic. He writes from St. John's.