Federal government ignores science supporting pinniped harvesting

Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier seems determined to ignore a growing body of scientific evidence that seals and sea lions are having a devastating effect on Pacific Salmon and steelhead populations. 

The Report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans recommended that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) take concrete steps to reduce seal and sea lion overpopulation to curtail pinniped predation on vulnerable wild steelhead and salmon. 

The report, delivered to the House of Commons in December, suggests DFO act on the concerns of conservation groups, scientists, researchers, harvesters, and Indigenous people that pinniped populations have “expanded to points of imbalance in certain regions” and that action should be taken to preserve “the sustainability of prey populations” such as steelhead, coho, and Chinook. 

Murdoch McAllister, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, told the Committee that in B.C. “sea lions consume over 300,000 tonnes of fish annually, more fish than all the commercial fisheries combined.” He added that B.C. harbour seals consume approximately two kilograms per day, for a total consumption of 70,000 tonnes of various fish species. 

This is not sustainable. 

The Minister’s response to the Standing Committee dismissed the idea of a commercial seal or even a licensed hunt saying that DFO has no evidence that pinnipeds are having a negative impact on Pacific salmon populations.  

That is truly perplexing. DFO is willfully ignoring a trove of evidence. 

  • The biomass of chinook salmon eaten by marine mammals increased 6,100 to 15,200 tons, between 1975-2015. Harbour seals ate the greatest numbers of salmon, mostly juvenile fish, compared with other marine mammals. Chasco et al, 2017. 
  • Increased harbour seal density negatively affected Salish Sea Chinook in 14 of 20 stocks. Increases in harbour seal abundance associated with a 44 per cent drop in sustainable harvest rates of Chinook and a 74 per cent drop in sustainable yield of Chinook. Nelson et al, 2019. 
  • Since 1970 predation rates by pinnipeds on Chinook and coho have increased ten-fold. Nelson, 2020; Nelson et al. 2024.   
  • Adult winter steelhead recruitment in Hood River was negatively associated with pinniped abundance. Pinniped controls were followed by three-fold increase in steelhead returns to spawning grounds. Courter et al, 2022. 
  • Increases in pinniped predation on adult salmon and smolts negatively impacted salmon populations between 1979 and 2020. Couture, Christensen, Walters 2024.  
  • Inshore pinniped predation strongly impacts Interior Fraser River Steelhead declines. Korman, Bison, Decker, 2018. 
  • Stellar sea lions implicated in the decline in productivity and abundance of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon. Walters et al, 2020. 
  • Harbour seal abundance was the strongest predictor of steelhead declines in Puget Sound. Sobocinski et al. 2020.  
  • Harbour seal abundance was also strongly associated with coho and Chinook declines in Puget Sound Sobocinski et al. 2021.   

The Federal government’s own advisors, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, specifically reference seals and sea lions as “problematic native species” in the decline of troubled Chinook and sockeye stocks. 

Evidence has been mounting for years that pinnipeds are having a negative effect on many salmon populations including those which are threatened and endangered. The Minister’s position also fails the eye test, as Indigenous and non-indigenous fishers report that pinnipeds target locations where they can feast on smolts. 

The Standing Committee recommends specifically designing a pinniped hunt to address “specialist pinnipeds” that consume large numbers of smolts in near fish ladders, hatcheries and at the mouth of tributaries. 

The B.C. Wildlife Federation supports the development of a pinniped management plan to curb their negative effects on threatened salmon and steelhead stocks. Science supports this, too. 

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