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Twenty Years and Counting: When Will We Ever Learn?
Crosbie, Seals and Cod

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Twenty Years and Counting: When Will We Ever Learn?
Crosbie, Seals and Cod

By Barry Kent MacKay, Born Free USA
July 2012

There aren’t enough fish in the ocean to satisfy the insatiable greed, or, if you prefer, economic need, to kill ever more. ....The government tries to promote the myth that the cull would pay for itself by selling the seal products, but everyone not delusional knows there is no market for grey seal products, and barely any for once profitable harp seal products....Far from impeding cod stock recoveries, seals are indicative of a healthier environment. But seals are such a convenient scapegoat. Fishers hate them.

Coincidentally, my recent visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, came a few days after the 20th anniversary of perhaps the most notorious day in the economic history of Atlantic Canada. It was July 2, 1992, when one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s best-known politicians, John Crosbie, announced a “moratorium” on the northwest Atlantic cod fishery.

Crosbie’s family had made its fortune exploiting nature, and he was now the federal fisheries minister in the Progressive Conservative party of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. My first night in Halifax, I watched Mr. Crosbie, now Newfoundland and Labrador’s lieutenant governor, interviewed on television. He was resplendent in seal-skin vest and bowtie.

Two decades earlier Crosbie was the latest in a succession of fisheries ministers whose mismanagement had destroyed what had once been the region’s most valued “resource.” Cod had once been so abundant as to impede passage of ships, and the economic engine of Newfoundland before and after it joined Canada in 1949. The cod fishery (and Canada’s notorious East Coast seal hunt, — I’ll get to that in a moment) fell under the jurisdiction of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The minister is always an elected politician, thus must cater to the whims of the electorate. There aren’t enough fish in the ocean to satisfy the insatiable greed, or, if you prefer, economic need, to kill ever more. DFO scientists who urged caution were ignored, if not outright shunned, and then as now, conservationists were demonized.

But truth can only be denied for so long and it fell to Crosbie to realize that he had a choice between letting the northern cod go extinct, or stop it from being fished. The day before the formal announcement the avuncular Crosbie faced up to an angry mob of fishermen in his own riding of Bay Bulls. The fishers knew what was coming and were angry. “I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water,” snarled Crosbie. His ancestors and the people who had elected him had done that, and it had continued under his jurisdiction, as it had under those of his predecessors.

Ancient history? Well, the cod fishery hasn’t recovered, and now Canada continues to ignore any advice that interferes with the profits that accrue from the systematic destruction of the world’s ability to sustain human life and, ultimately, commerce. Fishers are grubbing at the bottom of the oceanic food chains for “shellfish” and other invertebrates and oil is what is generating current fortunes. Environmentalists are demonized by the federal government and funding is cut to scientists who study climate change, whose work suggests that our dependence on fossil fuels contributes to climate change that, in turn, continues to reduce the world’s ability to sustain us.

In Halifax I met with Debbie MacKenzie, who reminisced about how she had gotten involved in environmentalism originally out of concern for the cod fishery. Debbie’s organization, GSCS, the Grey Seal Conservation Society (www.greyseal.net) is dedicated to “raising public awareness of the need to preserve healthy marine life, with a particular focus on the wider ecological value of protecting all large ocean animals, including seals.”

It would be hard to find an independent marine biologist who didn’t agree with that aspiration, realizing the vital role apex predators, as they are called, play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. And yet DFO wants to kill huge numbers of grey seals, ironically in order to “protect” remaining cod stocks. Large, predatory fish, like bigger species of sharks and tuna, have been nearly eliminated by overfishing. DFO has a dilemma. Because federal funding to research that leads to substantiation of environmental concerns is being caught under the rubric of economy, it’s hard to justify the cost involved in removing enough grey seals to make a difference. The government tries to promote the myth that the cull would pay for itself by selling the seal products, but everyone not delusional knows there is no market for grey seal products, and barely any for once profitable harp seal products.

There was, also coincident to my visit, news that some large cod had been found. There are emerging indications of some recovery of cod stocks in areas where grey seals are common. Far from impeding cod stock recoveries, seals are indicative of a healthier environment. But seals are such a convenient scapegoat. Fishers hate them. Those would be the same fishers who, to paraphrase Crosbie’s famous retort of 20 years earlier, “took the fish from the goddamn ocean.”