It's a widespread belief in fishery circles, but one DFO scientist says that for now, you just can't assume that it's true.
John Brattey says the scientific evidence does not support the notion that harp seal populations are hindering the rebuilding of northern cod stocks by gobbling up all the fish.
Brattey admits it's not easy to get good data on the diets of harp seals, but says what studies have been performed do not support the notion.
Some evidence can be found just by looking at the recovery rates in the last decade, he said.
"[There has been] a substantial increase. In fact, the rates of growth have been quite high," Brattey told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.
"This has happened during a period when the seal population has been at or near an all-time high, so that information doesn't jive with the notion that seals are a major impediment to recover, at least in the recent period."
More study needed
Brattey said some research has shown that capelin availability and fishing are bigger drivers of northern cod stocks.
"We often find that seals are blamed for a lot of things," he said, who noted the preferred diet of costal harp seals seems to be capelin.
"There is some conflicting information out there, and I certainly believe it does need to be looked at more, but at the moment we don't have strong indications that harp seals are having a big impact on cod recovery."
Grey seals adapting, but thousands of harp seals could die because of lack of ice
By Nancy Russell
The ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence could put thousands of harp seal pups in jeopardy, while grey seals in the Northumberland Strait appear to have adapted to changing winter weather patterns.
A team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been conducting a seal survey over the last couple of weeks, taking off by helicopter from the Charlottetown Airport.
"Our main interest this year has been to try to find out where the seals are pupping and to get an idea of the timing of pupping," said biologist Mike Hammill.
Grey seals adapting to ice
The grey seals are the first to pup around P.E.I. — at the end of January — and biologists are observing "a lot less ice."
"If we go back into the 1990s, almost 100 per cent of the pups were born on the ice between Nova Scotia and P.E.I.," said Hammill.
"This year, and for the last two or three years, it's been down around one per cent of the pups are born on the ice and the remaining pups are born on the islands in the Strait," he said, including a large colony of grey seals on Pictou Island.
"It's an interesting species because it's one of the few that will pup either on the ice or pup on land," he said.
However, the grey seals that tried to pup on the ice in the Strait this year have not fared well.
"We've flown over one day and seen the animals and then we've gone back and all the ice has disappeared so those pups have probably drowned," said Hammill.
Harp seal pups need ice to survive
The biologists will resume their work at the end of February when the harp seals have their pups.
"That species is quite different in that they do not seem to be able to adapt to pupping on land, they seem to require ice for pupping," explained Hammill.
When harp seals pup on land, the females tend to abandon the pups after a few days.
"Usually in these conditions, the eagles will get the pups, the seagulls, the coyotes," said Hammill.
"The best thing is to leave them alone and hopefully the female will stick around for a while and stick with the pup."
"This year we do not have much ice in the Gulf [of Saint Lawrence] at all so we expect to find animals along the north side of P.E.I. and the coast of New Brunswick," he said, adding that the seals will sometimes head back to Newfoundland if they can't find ice in the Gulf.
The lack of ice is bad news for the harp seals, according to Hammill, because they have a high mortality rate when born on shore.
He predicts thousands could die, similar to 2011. To put that in perspective, Hammill says 200 thousand harp seal pups are born in the southern Gulf, and usually have about a 50 per cent mortality rate in their first year even when ice conditions are good.
Hooded seals can be 'quite aggressive'
There are two other species of seals seen around P.E.I., including the smaller harbour seals which breed in the summer.
Then there is the hooded seal, which is around the same size as the grey seal, and has pups with a blue-ish fur.
"You have to be careful with them," warned Hammill.
He says hooded seals also prefer to pup on the ice but, if the ice drifts up on shore, will stick around for a day or so.
"These animals can be quite aggressive and they can move quickly and they leave a really nasty bite so people should stay away from them."
Warning: Some readers may find the content disturbing
By David Burke
A lobster fishing association in Yarmouth, N.S., is denouncing the alleged actions of three fishermen from the area who are accused of abusing a seal while on the water.
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced charges Wednesday against the trio after the public alerted it to an online video that showed a seal being poked, kicked and taunted while on a fishing boat.
"We want to make sure that the general public realizes that this was a very isolated incident," said Bernie Berry, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association. "It doesn't reflect in any way the behaviour of the fishermen that ply their trade in this area."
'Far reaching effects'
The group works to represent fishermen's interests in any matter that could affect the lobster fishery. Berry said most fishermen obey the law and follow the rules, and an incident like this hurts their reputation.
"It has far reaching effects and if this gets really ramped up it could have condemnations on particular fisheries, if the circumstances aren't fully explained to the public," said Berry.
The video of the seal being abused was posted on Mark Allan MacKenzie's Facebook page. He, along with Jay Alexander Jenkins and Brendon Dougles James Porter are all facing charges under the Fisheries Act related to the mistreatment of a marine mammal and the handling of incidental catch.
Jenkins and Porter are also accused of fishing without a registration card.
This isn't MacKenzie's first run-in with the law related to his activities on the water.
In 2005, he was accused of ramming his boat into another fishing vessel and was charged with assault with a weapon, uttering threats and dangerous operation of a vehicle.
According to Nova Scotia provincial court records, MacKenzie also has 17 prior Fisheries Act convictions. They include failure to comply with conditions of a licence and possession of female crabs.
In 2009, he was handed almost $25,000 in fines for offences, including the possession of lobsters bearing eggs and mutilated lobsters. He was required to install a vessel monitoring system for one year.
When asked about MacKenzie's previous run-ins with the police and DFO, Berry with the lobster association clammed up.
"On that particular avenue we're going to leave that up to the authorities, they're doing their due diligence," he said. "They're on top of this and that's their kind of duty, we're just going to stay out of that side of it."
With files from Richard Cuthbertson and The Canadian Press
Three fishermen have been charged after a video posted online appeared to show a seal pup being taunted prior to its death.
The video, which was posted on Facebook by one of the accused, appears to show fishermen shouting at the seal and occasionally prodding at it. A photos posted along with the video shows one of the fishermen posing with the baby seal after its death.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has charged three men from Nova Scotia with alleged mistreatment of a marine mammal in connection with the incident. "Our officers are taking this offence extremely seriously," Doug Wentzell, regional director general for the DFO, told CTV Atlantic. He declined to comment on what punishment the accused could face if they are convicted.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Sara Iverson of the Ocean Tracking Network says the seal in the video appears to be approximately one week old, which would make it too young to be hunted by a licensed sealer.
"The fact that it's covered with lanugo, that white fur, indicates that it's definitely a newborn seal," she said.
Mark Allan MacKenzie, who is among the three fisherman accused, says he and his crewmates were examining the seal, not taunting it. He told CTV Atlantic the seal pup became tangled in a hook and the crew decided to put it out of its misery. He added that he posted video and photos of the animal online because he thought it was interesting.
MacKenzie declined to appear on camera for an interview with CTV Atlantic.
Activist Caitlin Buchanan plans to hold a rally outside the DFO's office in Yarmouth to demand punishment for the three accused.
"I want to see their licences revoked," she told CTV Atlantic. "I don't want to see them suspended, I don't want to see fines. Their licences should be revoked."
Outfitted with receivers and Bluetooth devices, seals gather and transmit the ocean's secrets
By Paul Withers
Ottawa has announced five years' worth of funding for a Halifax-based aquatic research network that includes gathering information from the depths of the ocean using wired seals.
Andy Fillmore, the Liberal MP for Halifax, announced $11.4 million for Dalhousie University's Ocean Tracking Network at an event Monday.
The money, from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is part of $328 million in federal funding being doled out to major research projects and scientific endeavours across the country.
"OTN research generates incredibly important information about climate change, the impact of offshore development," said Fillmore.
"This knowledge is used to guide the management of responsible fisheries policies and understand the sustainability of the world oceans."
The Ocean Tracking Network builds and deploys Canadian-designed acoustic receivers and oceanographic monitoring equipment around the world.
Its sensors track the movement of more than 100 at-risk and commercially important species.
Putting grey seals to work
Sara Iverson, the network's science director, said technology has advanced to the point where researchers are now putting the grey seal herd on Sable Island to work.
Scientists have attached mini receivers and Bluetooth links to the large mammals that transmit data gathered underwater to satellite when the seals surface.
"It's a lot less expensive putting it on the animal because they are going to be running around the ocean anyway," said Iverson.
"They can go to depths of the oceans in times of the year where it's too dangerous or costly to use expensive ship time."
Exploring the ocean
The sensors provide basic data on ocean conditions throughout the water column and also record when an animal with a tag swims by a seal carrying a receiver.
Scientists have found that grey seals and bluefin tuna are targeting the same foraging hotspots for the same prey.
Masters student Benia Nowak recently returned from Sable Island, where she started recovering tags from the grey seal herd.
"I think it's really important," she said. "I think we don't know enough about the biology of the ocean, about how these species are moving.
"The more we know about them, the better we can manage the species and oceans overall."
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