Scapegoats of the Deep

Commentary by Paul Watson
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"I would like to see the six million seals, or whatever number is out there, killed and sold, or destroyed or burned. I do not care what happens to them. If there was a market for more seals, the commercial sealers would be hunting and killing seals. The ‘personal use' sealers...cannot sell them because the markets are not there. What they want is the right to go out and kill the seals....and the more they kill, the better I will love it."

The man who said this is Mr. John Efford, the current Federal Minister for Natural Resources and the former minister of fisheries for the province of Newfoundland.

What Mr. Efford was referring to on May 4, 1998, in a statement in the Legislature was his desire to exterminate the harp seals off the Eastern coast of Canada.

There are far less than six million harp seals, but Mr. Efford has never been a man to let facts get in the way of a political agenda. Sometimes he stated that there were eight million, or when he was particularly inclined to a snit, he had stated categorically that there were twelve million.

The numbers are irrelevant - he wants them wasted, every cute, little, innocent, doe-eyed one of them. What Newfoundland needed, he preached, " a solution to deal with these six million seals."

The word solution in Efford's vocabulary can be interpreted here as "removal with very extreme prejudice."

The number chosen immediately recollected another politician from the Thirties who said, "If you tell a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it to be truth."

Thus Efford's intent was to put the media philosophy of Joseph Goebbels into practice when he tirelessly repeated the lie that the harp seal is responsible for the destruction of the Newfoundland cod fishery.

Just exterminate the harp seal, Efford proclaims, and the cod will return. "Kill them (seals) and they (cod) will come back."

The "wisdom" of John Efford has now been proven to not contain a shred of scientific credibility but that has not stopped politicians from the political scapegoating of the seal.

The harp seal is no more of a threat to the return of the cod than the common house cat. In fact, a house cat is more likely a greater threat considering that house cats throughout the world consume much more fish than the entire harp seal species. There are hundreds of millions of house cats consuming hundreds of millions of tins of cat food made with fish, but there are only between two million and six million harp seals (depending on whose estimates one chooses to accept) eating fish, of which only 2-3% is cod.

The problem is, however, that people choose to believe what they want to believe and wily politicians know that a lie, especially a lie that bodes promise, is a powerful tool in the hands of a master liar.

Efford's former boss was Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, the former Canadian federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. (DFO). Tobin was a master of the lie in his day.

Back in 1994 as a Federal Minister, Tobin dismissed the harp seal as a threat to the cod because his federal department studies demonstrated that there was no relationship to the destruction or the lack of recovery of the cod to harp seal populations. In fact, the scientists had stated that a healthy harp seal population might even be a prerequisite for a healthy population of cod.

Tobin loudly echoed his department's policy at a media conference in Ottawa. "Man has been a far greater predator on the stocks that disappeared. If we are going to recover the cod, it's more important to stop the two-legged predators and their pirate vessels than it is to go out and shoot seals."

Translated, this means that the average Canadian respects the opinion of the scientists, happens to like seals, and is not invested in the cod fishery. Thus telling the truth about seals was the politically wise tactic for a federal politician.

Fast forward to December 18, 1985. Tobin had resigned from the Federal government to make a run for the premiership of the Province of Newfoundland. This means that Tobin could now afford to kiss off the average Canadian and move to appease the average Newfoundlander who hated the fishery biologists for telling them they can't fish, and hated seals in the belief they eat all the fish. They were suffering massive unemployment due to the shutting down of the destructive cod dragging fleets.

The same Mr. Tobin changed his tune and sang, "There is only one major player still fishing the cod. His name is harp and his second name is seal."

The last thing that Tobin did as federal minister of fisheries was to re-open the commercial seal hunt with a quota of 250,000 seals, giving Canada the distinction of hosting the largest slaughter of a wildlife population in the world.

The next thing that Tobin did was to run for Premier of Newfoundland and, of course, he won. He said what the people wanted to hear, namely that they, the Newfoundland fishermen, did not wipe out the cod. The real culprit was the harp seal and all of our problems will be solved if we just exterminate the adorable little thieves.

As an ocean activist, I acted in 1993 to address the continuing rape of the cod by foreign drag trawlers. With my ship and crew I ordered the Cuban fleet off the Tail of the Grand Banks and was in the process of doing the same with the Spanish fleet, when the Canadian government arrested me and charged me with interfering with foreign draggers that had been licensed by the Canadian government.  This was news to the Newfoundland fishing community, idled by the shutdown of the domestic cod fishery in 1992 by the very same government.

Two years later in 1995 in a CTV television debate between myself and the Minister, Tobin dismissed my position that the harp seal ate very little cod with a flippant remark. "And what do they eat Watson, Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

"No," I replied. "They have better taste than that."

I then seriously told him that only 2 to 3 per cent of a harp seal's diet was made up of cod. The rest were species that preyed upon cod. I also said that lowering the seal population would translate into a larger population of fish species that preyed upon cod and thus would contribute further to the diminishment of the cod.

I told him that if he was serious about protecting the fish, he would actually kick the foreign draggers off the Bank instead of posing as a tough guy on foreign fleets for the camera. Also, make the Banks "dragger proof," I advised. Sink old ships and dump old cars onto the bank to provide structure for the fish. The wrecks will shred any drag trawl dropped.

The then Fisheries Minister laughed and asked me how we could expect to operate the Canadian dragger fleet again in the future after the cod recovered if we made the Banks dragger proof.

"My God," I thought to myself. "He actually believes his own myth that the cod will return and he has not learned a thing. He'll let those mad-dog draggers loose again even if there is a moderate recovery."

"Mr. Tobin," I said. "Forget the draggers. Leave the fish for the traditional doryman. They can manage a sustainable fishery."

"Grow up Watson," Tobin replied. "There's no future in such a paltry approach. Only the draggers can provide the jobs that Newfoundlanders need."

He had forgotten or had never realized that it was the draggers that destroyed those jobs.

The government shelled-out tax dollars to appease the unemployed while the vast profits of the fish barons were scooped up and reinvested in other industries by the corporate masters of the minister and his government,

In the years that have followed, little has changed. The foreign draggers are still plundering the banks outside the 200-mile limit and Canadian corporations continue to buy cod from the foreign draggers as Newfoundlanders continue to receive subsidies for not being able to fish.

Considering the time and tax dollars spent on the welfare of the fishers, each and every one of them could have been sent to school and trained for alternative employment. But then they would not be so disgruntled and discontented citizens are more easily manipulated than contented citizens. Besides, if they were to get an education, they might just be able to see through the design of their elected officials. Worse, they might even challenge their office. Politicians do not like their constituents to be overly educated. Education is the workbench of reform and change, and that would never do.

On April 25, 1999, Max Short, senior advisor to then federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans David Anderson, stood before a deep-seas fisheries conference in Marystown, Newfoundland, and - without naming names - conveyed to attendees his admiration for the individuals responsible for triggering the Great War and World War II: Gavrilo Princip (the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1914), and Adolph Hilter, respectively.

Short noted that "it took a crazy man" to ignite those conflicts, and he longed for someone "with similar nerve" (as the Newfoundland Evening Telegram discretely reported it) to put into motion the final solution to the seal question.

John Efford was quick to answer the call with a demand to the Canadian Minister for Fisheries and Oceans to raise the seal hunt quota above 275,000 and to authorize a "cull" of two million seals for the year 2000.

"Mass slaughter is our only hope for recovery of the cod." He said.

Fast forward to 2005. Efford has gotten his way and the quota for this year is 350,000 seals the same as the 2004 and 2003. Once again we have politicians attempting to solve the problem of wildlife destruction by, well, destroying more wildlife.

Efford is quiet today and Geoff Regan has become the mouthpiece for the slaughterhouse crowd.

Are the seals preventing the recovery of the cod?

Absolutely, said Efford in 1999. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, said Tobin the same year.

"Ev'ryone knows the seals is to blame," echoed a Newfoundland fisherman I spoke to on the dock at Petty Harbor, Newfoundland.


"Certainly, no Department of Fisheries scientist thinks the seal had anything to do with the fishery's collapse." Said Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings, a fishery biologist at Dalhousie University who has done work for the department. "So the question is, are seals inhibiting the cod's rate of recovery? He said at the time and added, "I don't know. Nobody knows. We don't have the data. And it bothers me that Tobin gives the impression to the public that they do, when decisions are made under the guise of science."

The International Society for Marine Mammalogists, in a petition released in 1996, condemned the Canadian government's re-opening of the seal hunt. The petition signed by 97 biologists from 15 countries said:

"All scientific efforts to find an effect of seal predation on Canadian groundfish stocks have failed to show any impact. Overfishing remains the only scientifically demonstrated problem. If fishing closures continue, the evidence indicates that stocks will recover, and killing seals will not speed that process."

Unfortunately, it is not the scientists who speak for the DFO.

Jean-Eudes Haché, the senior advisor on fisheries management for DFO defended the re-opening of the hunt and the rising annual quotas since 1996. "It's not correct to say the science isn't there. It is there, but this is a touchy issue, and always has been, because seals are cute and get more attention. It raises all kinds of emotions - more emotions than facts."

The "facts" according to Haché can be found in a "peer reviewed" DFO departmental study done in 1994 and released in 1996 that indicated a large increase in the seal population and a calculated consumption of 142,000 tonnes, or, 300 million small young cod a year. The study found these conclusions after killing and examining the stomach contents of 5,000 seals.

According to harp seal expert and marine mammalogist Dr. David Lavigne the report did not hold water. "The number of cod they say are eaten is based on the seal population, which they admit to only estimating. That study, they themselves described as a preliminary one and was "peer reviewed" only inside the DFO, which is no peer review at all. If they want a real outside peer review, they should go to the Society for Marine Mammalogy."

Lavigne has created a food-chain chart that illustrates a complex interaction of more than 80 animals and plants existing on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The harp seal and the cod are only two of these species. According to Dr. Lavigne, yes, harp seals do utilize young cod for 3% of their diet. Of greater concern should be the fact that many of the other fish that comprise the remaining 97% of the seal's diet are themselves predators on young cod. Remove the harp seal and the return of the cod could be hindered, not helped by a significant increase in predatory fish hunting for cod.

It made sense to me. I'm not a marine biologist, but I am a marine historian. I've read the logbooks of the early explorers and the early sealers.

Captain Jacques Cartier, credited with being the first European to set foot in what is now Canada, described the Grand Banks and the Gulf of St. Lawrence as brimming with life in abundance. The cod was so populous, according to Cartier, that the very bottom of the Banks was carpeted with giant cod. There was no need for a net, wrote Cartier. A wicker basket was sufficient. Throw it in and it would come up brimming with fish.

At that time, in 1535, there was an estimated thirty million seals and yet, miraculously, there was no shortage of fish. An incredibly large seal population and a never again record number of cod co-existing at the same time.

How could this have been if the harp seal, as Efford describes it, is a voracious consumer of cod? The answer, of course, is that nature had established a balance protecting diversity through the interdependence of all the species co-existing on the Grand Banks and the Gulf.

The three primary laws of ecology were in harmony. The law of interdependence, the law of biodiversity, and the law of finite resources.

The eco-system was so healthy that for four hundred years, the hook and line dorymen, and the Grand Banks schooners had a minimal impact on the numbers.

What changed this was the introduction of heavy gear technology within the last thirty years.

The giant draggers with their gargantuan nets began to scour the Banks, gulping everything in their path and smashing the protective cover, the rocks, plants, and fragile submarine landscape of the bottom. The cod were dragged to the surface by the hundreds of thousands of tons. The fishing corporations made incredible profits, and this led to a greed to take even more.

The draggers began to drop their doors through the winter ice and they discovered the spawning grounds, hauling up the fish before they could reproduce, without a thought for tomorrow.

The Canadian and Newfoundland governments went along with the corporations. The tax money flowed into government coffers. People were employed; the processing plants worked round the clock and that was all that was important to consider until the next election.

The inshore Newfoundland fishermen warned the governments a decade in advance. No one listened to them. They were dorymen - mere peasants compared to the trawler bosses. They would not be needed again until well, later, when the government would need a poster boy for the world to feel sorry for.

Because in 1992, the draggers returned empty and the Grand Banks cod fishery, the greatest damn fishery in the entire history of the world, was done. It was over and gone and the like of it will never be seen again.

Politicians are nothing if not versatile and they were quick to replace cod fishery dollars with government handouts and a promise that the cod would return - if only the real culprit for the demise of the cod could be removed.

Thus the harp seal became the scapegoat, the animal that would have to die to allow the blame to be shifted from those who were really responsible, the greedy companies, complicit politicians, incompetent bureaucrats, the lazy media, and the ignorant public.

There was no tactic beneath Efford's consideration. In 1999 he released video footage of hundreds of cod littering the bottom of a Newfoundland Bay. The stomachs had been ripped out and the carcasses lay rotting. Divers were shown examining the fish.

"That is all the evidence that we needed," roared Efford. "The seals wasted these fish."

According to Dr. David Lavigne, whose credentials as a harp seal expert far exceed those of the former Newfoundland fisheries minister, there has never been any observable behavior of harp seals eating only the stomachs of the fish and leaving the bodies to rot.

According to Lavigne, there was not even evidence presented that harp seals were even in the area. Not a one was seen.

"Politics," says Lavigne, "is the father of the lie. Everything that Tobin said (when he resurrected the seal hunt) is not what his own scientists said. They do good work but they're gagged. One of them I know had the temerity to tell the press that what's happened to the fish had nothing to with seals, but was simply overfishing, was reprimanded, and resigned from the department.

"Who did it then?" was Efford's reply back then.

My reply to Efford was, "You tell us, Mr. Efford. It has all the appearance of a frame job."

So convinced was I that the seals could not have done such damage, I authorized the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to offer a reward of $25,000 dollars for any film or video of a harp seal in the act of ripping a stomach out of a cod.

I never had to pay out that reward.

Five years ago, Peter Meisenheimer, a research scientist at the International  Marine Mammal Association, expressed a serious concern over the fact that politics dictated the "science" at DFO.

This was illustrated succinctly in the early 1990's when former Fisheries Minister John Crosbie accused DFO scientists of being "demented."

"They don't have to deal with the economic, social, and cultural effects of reduced cod quotas. I do." stated Crosbie.

When it comes to politics ideals, science, and practicality are rapidly thrown out the window in the interest of political expediency. The fact is that to be a politician in Newfoundland you have to believe that seals are destroying the cod.

In July 1999, a group of Newfoundland Greens under the leadership of a sweating, sealskin coat-wearing Jason Crummey staged a protest in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Crummey, perspiring under a hot summer sun said, "We're not just doing this to thumb our noses at the Green Party of Canada for not supporting a seal hunt. Unless the Green Party of Canada listens to us and supports a hunt, we don't have a chance of getting a single candidate elected in Newfoundland - not to mention being taken seriously."

As a result, even the Newfoundland Green Party ended up supporting the slaughter.

Must the seals die for the politicians, even the Greens, to be taken "seriously"?

It appears so. The thousands of Newfoundlanders put out of work need an endless supply of political bones to be thrown to them so they can continue the illusion that they will go fishing again.

Not all Newfoundlanders are taken in by the political machinations. Twillingate sealer Gary Troake knew the truth and expressed it in an interview with Toronto Star reporter Lynda Hurst in 1999. "Tobin just wants seals out of the system because of pressure from fishing countries and from fishing communities here. Not all Newfoundlanders are sealers, you know. We're mainly in the north, so a lot of them down south will believe the big lie."

Troake went on to explain. "That seals destroyed the cod. Our overfishing - our own greed - killed it. You can't deal with the mismanagement of the fish by mismanaging the seal. I sent a letter to Tobin demanding that seal stocks be treated with the same respect as cod. Then I realized what I'd said and put in brackets ‘bad example'."

Canadian naturalist Farley Mowat, who has studied the history of the seal hunt believes that the kill is always three to one. That means two lost beneath the ice for every seal officially taken in the quota.

If so, a quota of 300,000 will mean over 900,000 killed.

A kill of just short of a million and again in 2001 and 2002.

One way or the other, Efford is getting what he wanted in 1999.

Every aspiring politician desires a scapegoat and every successful politician has found one.

John Efford and Geoff Regan have found theirs.

I wonder what the politicians will use as an excuse after the harp seal is gone and its use as a scapegoat has gone with it?

The whales maybe. Perhaps the dolphins. That will be for a future politician to discover.

As for Efford and Regan, they will give it nary a thought. They will have achieved their ambitions through the blood sacrifice of the harp seal.

Sources: Opening quote by John Efford from the Newfoundland Legislature (May 4, 1998). Quotes from debate between Paul Watson and Brian Tobin from CTV. Ref. Sea of Slaughter by Farley Mowat. Quotes from Green Party member Jason Crummey from the St. John's Evening Telegram (July 11/99). Quotes from Max Short from the St. John's Evening Telegram (April 26, 1999). Quotes attributed to Dr. David Lavigne, Gary Troake, Peter Meisenheimer, Jean-Eudes Haché, Brian Tobin, and Dr. Jeffrey Hutching from the Toronto Star, Article by Lynda Hurst (1999). Interviews between Paul Watson and Farley Mowat, Dr. David Lavigne and Newfoundland fishermen by Paul Watson.