Cute problems?

seal wide-angle close-up web

Ontario has bears. BC and Alberta have wolves. Atlantic Canada has seals.

All three groups of animals have cute offspring; charismatic megafauna, if you will. All three have advocates that don’t want any harm to become of the animals. All three have advocates that encourage culling their populations.

The contentiousness of the Ontario spring bear hunt is palpable. Some see firing a rifle at a bear that was lured to a pile of apples and other sugary treats a deplorable method of hunting. Others view the hunt as crucial to proper wildlife management and essential for protecting the public’s safety.

The wolf culls currently going on in BC and Alberta are equally controversial, if not more so than Ontario’s spring bear hunt. At play is a question of ethics. Accusations levied against the government include culling entire packs using a “Judas Wolf” (an individual fitted with a radio-collar that gives away the pack’s location), aerial culling using helicopters, and the use of animal carcasses laced with the poison strychnine. Proponents of the cull assert that it is necessary to save populations of woodland caribou that are close to extirpation. The caribou not only represent an important component of boreal ecosystems in BC and Alberta, but they represent an important facet of First Nations culture in the region. Those opposed assert that the cull is simply a public relations ploy, an effort aimed at showing the public that the government is at least trying to do something. They further state that the cull distracts from the real problem: increasing amounts of infrastructure (e.g., roads, pipelines) from natural resource extraction sites is facilitating movement of predators and destroying caribou habitats.

The biggest and most controversial wildlife-related topic here in Atlantic Canada is the seal harvest. Seals – harp, grey, and hooded – were culled as part of wildlife management operations for many years, as well as the target of commercial hunting endeavours. In remote northern Canadian communities, profits from seal harvests may represent a significant portion of yearly income. In recent years, questions have arisen as to the interaction between the growing grey seal populations and fish stocks, namely the Atlantic cod. Thus far, the Atlantic cod population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence has not recovered to expected levels, and a high population of grey seals (from 15,000 in the 60s to an estimated 505,000 in 2014)consuming larger spawning-sized individuals and a high number of fish aggregating at overwintering sites may at least be partially responsible for the failed recovery. Indeed, very few grey seals are harvested in Atlantic Canada; just 82 individuals in 2014.


A white-coat Harp seal pup (not my photo). Google Images/Flickr Creative Commons


Over the years, seal harvesting has declined precipitously. The most plausible explanation for this is increasing pressure from animal rights advocacy groups to stop harvests. Here again, is the issue of ethics and methods of harvest. While some hunters favour rifles and shotguns, others employ more traditional methods such as clubs and a device called a hakapik. Video and photos of sealers using the latter two methods can only be described as “provocative” and almost certainly forms the basis for anti-sealing campaigns.

harp seal harvest

Harp seal harvest from 2002 to 2014. Data provided by DFO

During years of low ice formation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, adult seals may come ashore to give birth to their pups. While seals often need ice to give birth on, shore-based births may increase pup survival in years when ice formation is weak.

For photographers, seals coming ashore represents a fleeting opportunity to photograph these marine mammals from a close distance. Below is a collection of photographs from 2015 and 2016.

My thoughts on the seal harvest – as well as wolf cull and spring bear hunt – are complicated, and reflect my conflicting love of nature, sensitivity to animal welfare issues, understanding of wildlife management principles, and realization that certain groups of citizens require money for themselves and their families. This is a debate that will rage for decades, and may be something that will never be resolved. For now, I will continue to enjoy my brief photo sessions with these charismatic marine mammals.

(Click a photo from each set of three to scroll through each collection)


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