BY MIKE YOUDS
Special to Alberni Valley News
A group lobbying for a commercial harvest of harbor seals and sea lions on the West Coast is encouraged after meeting with federal fisheries officials.
Richmond-based Pacific Balance Pinniped Society is pressing Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to consider a managed Indigenous fishery for seals and sea lions. Society members are convinced that a pinniped explosion is a contributing factor to declining populations of wild salmon and other finfish along the B.C. coast.
“Our salmon are going and will go the way of the buffalo unless we do something,” said Thomas Sewid, founder of the society. “It’s not just fish, it’s a way of life.”
Seals and sea lions — part of the mammalian family known as pinnipeds — have been protected in B.C. waters since 1970. First Nations have always been permitted to harvest some animals for social and ceremonial purposes, but only about 25 permits are issued yearly.
Sewid, a Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation consultant and eco-tourism operator, believes a much larger harvest, an Indigenous commercial fishery, is warranted for salmon conservation and could create thousands of jobs. Their hope is that a fishery would bring pinniped populations back into balance with the coastal ecosystem.
For decades, fishermen have reported a steady rise in native pinniped populations, including harbour seals and Steller sea lions. California sea lions began migrating into B.C. waters in the 1980s and have increased to an estimated 35,000 in the Gulf of Georgia, Sewid said.
The society met last week with fisheries authorities, including UBC Prof. Carl Walters, an expert in fish stock assessment. Walters has publicly advocated a pinniped harvest for the express purpose of determining its impact on chinook salmon conservation.
“He made a direct correlation with mortality and survival for coho and chinook,” Sewid said.
A managed commercial harvest would allow for the needed research and benefit First Nations economically, the group contends.
“We already have interest shown for every part of seals and sea lions,” said Sewid, listing various pinniped products. Seal meat is rich in omega-3 fatty acid, also contained in fatty fish such as salmon, herring and tuna, making it highly marketable. What’s critical at this point is additional research into toxicity levels to determine whether pinniped meat is safe for human consumption, he said.
A group of fishermen in Port Alberni is keeping an eye on the proposal. They are just as convinced that pinniped over-population explains the decline of wild salmon stocks. Michael Fenton said he’s seen as many as 30 sea lions lining the shore between Port Alberni and Bamfield.
“The government’s already done the research,” Fenton said. “The seals take six times more than all the commercial and sport fisheries combined, so that’s why we don’t have any salmon.”
Some caution that the marine ecosystem is more complex. Fisheries has argued in the past that seal also prey on hake. They reason that thinning seal populations would increase hake, which also prey on salmon fry, they reason.
Sewid said Walters shot down that theory at the meeting, citing inadequate research.
He feels the federal government has no alternative even if there are those who object: “They have no choice; they have to do something about it.”
Salmon fisheries along the south coast are braced for more restrictions in the season ahead as DFO attempts to increase chinook for orca conservation.
Whether a pinniped fishery becomes a part of chinook conservation remains open to speculation.
DFO maintains that seals rely more on herring and hake for food, and that salmon represent just 10 percent of their diet. Salmon predation varies among sea lions.
Both species are believed to be at or slightly above historic norms, DFO noted in response to questions from Alberni Valley News.
“Further science advice would be needed with regard to the likelihood and magnitude of any population reduction that could result in a direct measurable increase in salmon abundance,” a DFO communications advisor stated.