One Innu elder reportedly said she had never seen so many harp seals in the area. Where there would normally be several hundred seals, there were several thousand animals — and they're found all along the coast, with few signs of polar bears just yet.
DFO's most recent survey of harp seals in the northwest Atlantic put the population at 7.6 million. While the annual total allowable catch has been set at 425,000 animals, the average removal a year for the the last five years was 29,848, with total removals over the last five years at almost 150,000.
Officials say Ottawa has changed its tune regarding the negative impact of seals on East Coast fish stocks.
A two-day seal summit wrapped up in November in St. John’s with an open call by federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray for proposals to study seals in the marine ecosystem.
But there is still no plan to address the seal population.
Of the six species of seal in Atlantic Canadian waters, DFO only has recent population estimates for two — harp and grey seals.
The number of harps in the northwest Atlantic was pegged at 7.6 million in 2019 (up from 5.5 million in 2001), with indications the herd is increasing due to an exploding pregnancy rate.
The grey seal population off the East Coast in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off southern Newfoundland numbered 366,400 in 2021 — a huge jump from 15,000 in the 1960s.
The last survey of hooded seals in 2006 put the number of animals at 593,500, although the species is considered “data-poor.” DFO science also considers itself data-poor for bearded, harbour, and ringed seals.
DFO says there appear to be new "colonies" of grey seals — which are threatening groundfish stocks such as cod in the Gulf of St. Lawrence— as well as “river seals” or animals that take up year-round residence in some rivers
DFO’s leading seal scientist, Dr. Garry Stenson, said as late as last year the seal population is not a major factor in declining fish stocks.
However, the department provided information in November that stated seals at current population levels are impacting the recovery of groundfish species such as cod and pelagic stocks including capelin — despite the fact there’s been no fundamental change in seal science.
Executive Director, SEA-NL
Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SEA-NL) is a professional, non-profit organization serving as the distinct voice for licensed, independent owner-operator inshore fish harvesters. You can read more about SEA-NL, and join us here.