Seals will kill cod by 2050, study finds

Cod could disappear completely from certain areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence by 2050. Already weakened by overfishing, populations are struggling to recover because of the proliferation of one of their main predators: the gray seal.

A recent study reveals alarming statistics: the mortality rate of cod exceeds 50% in individuals over five years of age.

-Such high natural mortality is not sustainable-, says Doug Swain, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who co-signed the study.

Mr. Swain says the population is particularly vulnerable because it tends to congregate at the same location each year for migration, spawning and overwintering.

These chronic gatherings attract gray seals, for whom these schools of fish act as ideal pantries.

If the trend continues

Researcher Doug Swain used models to predict the possible future of the cod population if this level of predation continues.

In these projections, if we assume that natural mortality stays where it is now and there was no fishing, cod will disappear by mid-century.

 Doug Swain, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Scientist

-If the gray seals continue to attack the cod as they do now, it is impossible for this population to recover and it could fall to a negligible level-, he concludes.

Cod were once proliferating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, overfishing in the late 1980s virtually depleted stocks. Since then, the species has been trying to recover.

Baby boom in seals

Gray seal populations in the Gulf have exploded in recent decades, which is not to help cod.

The population has grown from about 8,000 seals in 1960 to more than 500,000 today.

If we let nature take its course, it will not find the balance it had 150 years ago.

 Doug Swain, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Scientist

According to the researcher, the company will have to decide whether to intervene. It can try to reduce the number of seals, or accept that Gulf cod do not recover.

Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University, says the difficulties of cod prove that overfishing can be fatal, even after all commercial activity is stopped.

When we deplete fish stocks at very low levels, they will not bounce back or rebuild , he says.

Moreover, according to him, there is no guarantee that cod will recover, even with control of seal populations.

The seal hunt, the solution?

In order to help the cod, Gil Thériault, director of the Association of Intra-Quebec Seal Hunters, argues that sea wolf hunting must be made more accessible to control populations.

-The seal will not stop at the cod, it’s going to be the herring, the mackerel. When there will be more, they will eat lobster and crab-, he says.

He deplores the fact that international pressure to ban this type of hunting is hindering its development. He would like the Government to lift some restrictions on this activity.

Currently, there is much more demand for gray seals than there is supply. The market is not the problem at all.

 Gil Thérault, Director of the Association of Intra-Quebec Seal Hunters

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