Harp Seals Beaten to Death

Harp Seals Beaten to Death

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By Dr. Marcos Sommer

On the ice off the northeast coast of Canada, off Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the world's largest slaughter of marine mammals (harp seals) has taken place since 2003. Today, humanity is a threat that the sea has never been to humanity.

  • The Government of Canada has a long history of mismanaging marine ecosystems, which has led to the depredation of marine biodiversity and the harp seal hunting and fishing industries to only yield short-term returns.
  • Instead of creating jobs for the economically disadvantaged sectors of Newfoundland, the Canadian government subsidizes the killing of seals.

On the ice off the northeast coast of Canada, off Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, since 2003 the largest slaughter of marine mammals (harp seal) in the world has taken place.

The St. Lawrence estuary in the North Atlantic is one of the most beautiful landscapes in Canada. The noise of the icebergs cracking, the music of the gunshots, the percussion of the clubs and the hoarse desperate roar of the terrified animals falling one after the other, may well be another charm of the place. Canadian policy found in the massacre of the last three years, a way to disguise the unemployment of fishermen due to the predation of the sea.

The Arctic ecosystem is characterized, unlike tropical ecosystems, by its short food chain and limited biodiversity. This makes them particularly fragile biological systems and dependent on a great abundance of their different components.

The biological wealth is distributed between ice sheets, sea water, the coastal zone, the tundra and some boreal conifers, configuring a mosaic of ecosystems that serves as permanent habitat or as a breeding and feeding area for the species.

500 years ago in this water there were schools of cod so dense that you could hardly navigate a canoe through the waters. The old ways of fishing were replaced by modern methods. Expensive, heavy and powerful equipment now catch large amounts of cod at once. Currently off the Newfoundland coast, there are almost no cod, the early 1990s collapsed populations and the fishing industry, and the Canadian government has turned its attention to harp seals. In the last three years, the number of permitted kills exceeds one million individuals due to the fact that the seals reproduced strongly and threaten the cod stocks in the Atlantic.

Gregarious animals, harp seals constitute large herds to give birth, breed and when the time of the shedding of the skin. The puppy triples its weight in the first two weeks of life. They reach their sexual maturity between 4 and 6 years. Males grow up to 1.70 meters in length and weigh about 130 kilograms. The females give birth to only one cub a year, weighing around 10 kilos, between the months of February and March, they mate again after the cubs are weaned. In just 12 days the puppy weighs 30 kilos, thanks to the mother's milk, which has a huge proportion of fat.

After mating, adult males congregate in the herd along with immature seals and non-breeding seals.
Their diet is made up of a wide range of prey species –without being able to prove that those include cod- varies according to age and season.
They owe their name to a dark spot on the skin in adults, reminiscent of the shape of a harp. Although the seal is not very agile on land, thanks to its tapered and hydrodynamic body, this animal is an excellent swimmer. As a diver, the depth reached and the dive time depend on your physical ability. They can stay up to 15 minutes underwater and descend to a depth of 275 meters or more. As a breathing mammal, you have to deal with the problem of increasing water pressure with depth, which strongly compresses an air-filled cavity that is the lungs. To minimize this danger, the air is usually exhaled before diving. Also compared to terrestrial mammals, the harp seal has the ability to store more oxygen and reduce the heart rate while diving. Through video recordings, it has been possible to demonstrate that this animal actively dives from the beginning of the dive until about three minutes later and that, later, they sink immobile in the depths. To minimize energy consumption, they use a trick when hydrostatic pressure increases with depth, the lungs contract, and the body also compresses. In this way, the volume of the animal decreases while maintaining the same weight. The specific weight of the animal increases and it sinks effortlessly into the depths.
Fossil remains indicate that they could have existed during the Miocene, approximately 20 million years ago.

Professional or commercial harp seal hunting has existed since the 16th century. In 1899, 33 million seals were killed in Canada for meat, fur, and oil. The economic market for seal products was eliminated in 1987, and the Canadian government finally made commercial hunting illegal. As of 2003, the Canadian seal hunt expands again. Although the killing of newborn seals is illegal, hunting of those that are only 14 days old is allowed. The Canadian Ministry of Fisheries in Ohawa authorized the slaughter of 320 thousand harp seals for this 2005 season, the total quota (called total allowable catch; TAC in its English acronym) is 970,000 seals, within the three-year management plan developed by the Department Fisheries and Oceans (DPO).

The price of sealskin has increased tenfold in the last 5 years. Canadian authorities pay 20 cents for each puppy that is killed. The demand for fur is highly valued in the fashion industry in several countries, its main markets being China, Japan, Norway, Estonia, Greece, Hong Kong, Poland, Denmark and Russia, since a sealskin is listed among the $ 40 a piece. Estimates made by the Government on the growth of the seal population assume that environmental and biological factors will remain unchanged in both the short and long term. A highly questionable premise in light of the growing impacts of climate change on ocean conditions and frozen areas. Hunting quotas are based on seal censuses conducted at five-year intervals. But because the hunts focus on hatchlings that do not reach reproductive age until five years of age, the impacts on the population can take more than 10 years to be known and it takes 15 years to determine the evolution of the population. Therefore, the censuses carried out by the Canadian government do not reflect the reality of the state of these populations.

In this millennium there is a long-term change in the composition of fisheries catches after the depletion of the more traditional stocks such as cod, flounder, grouper, tuna (90 percent reduced) and the dedication of efforts to other less valuable (molluscs, crustaceans) that were previously little or no exploited.

Several scientific studies have shown that seals only consume the equivalent of 1 to 3 percent of their body mass per day, while the general belief until now was that the percentage reached up to 27 percent.

FAO monitors the state of exploitation of the main species or groups of fishery resources for which assessment information is available. The current world situation is in line with the general trend observed in previous years. It is estimated that in 2003 about a quarter of the stocks that were tracked are under-exploited or moderately exploited (3 and 21 percent respectively) and could perhaps produce more. About half of the stocks (52 percent) are fully exploited and thus produce catches close to their maximum sustainable limits, while about a quarter are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, thus that it is necessary to replace them. From 1974 to 2003 there has been a continuous downward trend in the proportions of stocks that offer potential for expansion. At the same time, the proportion of overexploited and depleted stocks tends to rise, from about 10 percent in the mid-1970s to nearly 25 percent in the early 2000s.

Of the ten main species that account for a total of 30 percent, by volume, of world capture fisheries production, seven are considered fully exploited or overexploited (anchovy, Chilean horse mackerel, Alaskan colia, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting, capelin and Atlantic herring), which means that no major production increases can be expected from them. According to statistical data throughout the North Atlantic there has been a disastrous management of fisheries and now the blame is placed on seals, whales, dolphins and even seabirds.

On the one hand, in the past large populations of seals and whales have coexisted in equilibrium with huge populations of cod, and both the populations of seals and whales and those of cod were much larger than today. On the other hand, it is wrong to think that reducing the number of seals will necessarily increase the stock of cod. Marine food webs are very complex; seals not only feed on cod, but also on other species that are predatory of cod, which implies that the decrease in seals could lead to an increase in predatory species of cod and further damage cod stocks.
Another justification for this massive slaughter is because since the 70s the population has doubled and has gone from more than 1.3 million individuals to 4 - 6 million according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DPO). Scientists estimate that current Arctic seal populations are only 10 percent of what the original population was. The hunting territory extends about 40 miles around Newfoundland. From 2003 to today, 975,000 seals have been killed, which means 5,250 animals per day.

The International Fund for the Protection of Animals (IFAW) states that due to climate change, this year the ice is more fragile, which will cause an increase in natural mortality.

Another argument put forward by the Canadian government is that this massacre is a vital part of the local economy, for which last year it generated about 17 million euros. Only a small percentage of seal meat is processed and used. This small amount is used to make pet or farm food. Seal meat is only used as food by the natives because its composition is highly fatty. Also the genitals of the males are used in Asia (aphrodisiac).

The last century has seen the depletion of a series of populations of birds, reptiles and marine mammals that have a direct or indirect interaction with the collection by man of marine resources. Fishing or hunting has been the cause of many of these extinctions. In other cases such as those of the sea cow and sea turtles, the competition that man makes to find an adequate environment, which he often degrades himself, may have been the predominant cause.

The Canadian government maintains these hunts for two main reasons:

  • For fishermen to earn some income outside of the fishing season.
  • For the unproven myth that they extinguish cod. For this reason, seals are seen as "a plague" that must be exterminated. Profits from the sale of fur to China, Norway and Denmark last year were $ 16 million.

Fisheries production in the northwest Atlantic was at its lowest level in 1994, and again in 1998, with the depletion of groundfish stocks off eastern Canada. The lack of cod and salmon is due to poor management.

A simple model to illustrate the relationships between the various organisms in the sea is the marine food chain. As primary producers, single-celled algae use sunlight to form complex molecules that help them grow and multiply. The next link in the chain is herbivorous and feeds on the primary producers, being in turn the prey of the next carnivorous link in the chain and so on. In reality, however, it is rare for complex marine ecosystems to be composed of a single food chain made up of individual species feeding on other species below them in the food chain. Often times, the eating habits of a species also change throughout its life cycle: a young herring consumes phytoplankton, while the adult specimen consumes a wide spectrum of prey. Hence, it is better to describe the trophic relationships of the inhabitants of the sea as a marine food web, with complex interconnections between the different members of the community.

Harp seals, which are apical predators, have been important in controlling the densities of their prey species, but they have also been among the first whose numbers have been reduced by catches. However, given the complexity of many marine food webs, the commercial elimination of the main apical species often results in other organisms assuming all or part of the role of apical predators until perhaps the time comes when they too are overfished.

Marine food webs are complex and pose difficulties in quantifying the effects of human action. The elimination of a top predator has not always led to a significant increase in the performance of its prey species. Furthermore, if the population sizes of predatory species are taken into account before their depletion, there will probably have been a degree of competition between man and apical predators for their common prey, if it were still present in its original numbers. Thus, there are populations of marine mammals, even though many of them have now been reduced in size in many areas of the world that can still consume at least as large a volume of some species of prey as that captured by man. These calculations do not take into account ecological relationships, ecosystem stability, or the increasing recognition of the ecological importance of marine mammals and their cultural significance for man, due to their intelligence, media and social behavior. .

Current theories on the importance of predators in terrestrial ecology ecosystems have emphasized their importance for the systematic killing or thinning of diseased or unsuitable individuals and keeping the population sizes of prey species in balance with available resources, but not it is easy to gather hard evidence on the degree to which this argument holds at sea, where the predatory pressure of man is so high. It has not been confirmed in the marine environment whether, with the reduction of the populations of the main predators, the populations of prey fish are more unstable and / or if they would conform to these principles but would lead to different relative abundances of the component of the ecosystem. Precisely the question of what level of exploitation should be done has become a matter of discussion between those who are interested in food security and those who are concerned that harp seal populations remain in a situation as close as possible to their non-existence. exploitation. The achievement of this last objective imposes a considerable cost in terms of its effects on nature and the level of fishing activities, and today this cost would have to be borne almost exclusively by the fishing industry, which continues to play the leading role in what which refers to achieving a return on living marine resources.

Presumably, the return of many marine mammal populations to the numbers that existed before man assumed the predominant role of apex predator in marine food chains would only be possible due to significant reductions in global fish catches, and since then they would give rise to them.
Of course, there are specious arguments in discussions between conservation and development, and the contrasting evidence on both sides is not always analyzed. It has been speculated that reducing the abundance of cephalopods that feed on juveniles could increase the yields from fisheries for traditional fish species. This argument does not take into account the growth that is taking place in the squid fisheries around the world and that could be due to the fact that the cephalopods are occupying part of the niche left by the depleted species of groundfish, nor is it considered account for the fact that squid may now be achieving higher unit values ​​than most fish.

It is evident that the return of the volumes of the apical predator population to previous levels not exploited is only possible with a notable cost to man measured in the loss of animal protein from the seas, which must be taken into account in the scope of a Sustainable Development of marine resources.
The reduction of apical predatory cod is giving an increase in the yields of species that occupy a lower place in the food web, as these yields are dominated by small forage fish that have a lower unit value than cod, the net value of the fishery declined as a result.

The principles of sustainable development require that marine resources be exploited in such a way as to ensure the continuity of populations and species, but they do not help to choose between different levels of direct or indirect exploitation, which would otherwise be adjusted to these. principles but that would give rise to different relative abundances of ecosystem components.

Fighting for the conservation and survival of species, regardless of their beauty or size, is, neither more nor less, fighting for our present and future. It is a monumental task that pursues the very survival of the human being.

Today, humanity is a threat that the sea has never been to humanity.

* Dr. Marcos Sommer
Kiel Germany

Video: Seal Pups Face a Hungry Predator. Nat Geo Wild (June 2022).


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