Environmentalist says seals are a “scapegoat”, but B.C. Wildlife Federation says Puntledge River salmon could be destroyed

BY MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Comox Valley Echo (Courtenay, B.C.)
January 2, 1996

A local environmentalist says a hunting-and-fishing group’s calls for a seal-kill program to protect salmon stocks in the Comox Valley area are misguided.

“I think they’re trying for a quick fix,” says Ruth Masters, a member of groups such as Greenpeace and Citizens for Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Now we’ve got the seals as a scapegoat.”

The B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF), which represents hunters and sports fishermen, says the seal population has increased dramatically and is posing a severe threat to salmon stocks.

“They (seals) are cute little guys, but there’s just too many of them here,” says Reta Walls, BCWF president for the Vancouver Island region.

The federation supports federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin’s recent decision to increase the harvest of harp seals on Canada’s east coast, and calls on Tobin to allow a seal harvest here.

The BCWF estimates the B.C. population of seals has risen from 10,000 to 150,000 in the past 25 years.

Locally, early chinook and steelhead runs to the Puntledge River have been almost wiped out by some 750 seals in the estuary and another 40 to 50 in the river itself, according to BCWF figures.

In 1994, only 15 steelhead made it to the spawning grounds, the group says.

“They (seals) have almost totally decimated the fish in the Puntledge,” says Reta Walls. “They’ll eat anything.”

And BCWF president Bob Morris says much of the damage to salmon stocks is caused by about 30 to 40 “repeat offender” seals that prey on the seaward-migrating smolts or fry and returning adult spawners.

Walls, who is also a member of the Courtenay Fish and Game Protective Association, says the seals are severely hampering the association’s fish-rearing efforts.

The group pays to raise about 200,000 salmon per year, but most of those are being eaten by the hungry seals at spawning time.

“It’s disheartening,” Walls says. “It’s money just gone out the window.”

But environmentalist Masters says people are the real problem.

Overfishing, poor logging practices, dredging and pollution over the past hundred years have combined to pose a serious threat to salmon stocks, she says.

“We’ve literally destroyed an incredible resource,” she says.

Masters also questions the impartiality of the BCWF’s studies and the degree of the seals’ contribution to the death of the fish.

“I doubt that killing seals is going to make everything lovely,” she says. “Seals and fish have co-existed since time immemorial.”

A more serious threat to juvenile salmon is the purple loosestrife weed, which has surfaced locally in the past five years and chokes out other vegetation that fish and waterfowl need, she says.

And Masters suggests a different motive for the calls for lower seal numbers.

“Killing is their (hunters’) game,” she says. “They can hardly wait to get out there and start slaughtering seals.”

However, Walls says the BCWF does not want to decimate the seal population but wants to encourage a controlled seal-kill program that would lead to the conservation of both species.

And while she acknowledges that habitat destruction has been a problem that needs to be addressed, especially at the municipal-government level, she denies that overfishing is a problem.

“I don’t believe that at all.”

Recreational and commercial fishing are well controlled and regulated already, she said.

“Man has knocked out the natural balance of some species by building on their (salmon’s) habitat,” she says. “Man has to correct it.”

And she stresses the need for swift action on the part of the Fisheries Ministry.

“If they don’t do something now, the fish are going to be gone.”