COWICHAN BAY, B.C.—The seals and sea lions gathered around the docks of Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island are a beautiful sight.
Some are sleeping, some are barking, while others are playing in the water. For the throng of visitors vacationing this summer, seeing a sea lion scarf down a whole salmon in two bites is a West Coast moment they’ll never forget.
But an increasing number of the protected seals and sea lions (larger than seals, sea lions can walk) may be upsetting the balance of the British Columbia marine ecosystem. Now some First Nations are proposing a cull.
“Environmentalists trying to stop traditional seal and sea lion hunts … are trying to starve out the Indians,” says Tom Sewid of the Kwakwak’wakw First Nation on northeastern Vancouver Island. “I won’t put up with it.”
And as seals and sea lions have prospered, salmon have struggled.
“The demise of the salmon runs in British Columbia is equivalent if not greater than the extinction of the great buffalo herds across the Great Plains” in the 1800s, says Sewid. His First Nations Pacific Balance Marine Management group is advocating a return to traditional seal and sea lion hunts to balance the ecosystem.
While tourists take pictures, Tim Kulchyski, a Cowichan tribe natural resource expert, stands on the shore and counts the aquatic mammals. The number of sea lions — they can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds — has tripled in his lifetime, says the middle-aged man. And as their numbers grow, they are consuming ever more of the region’s coveted salmon stock, waiting by river mouths to catch salmon fry as they swim out to sea or mature salmon as they return to spawn.
The problem of seals and sea lions pilfering the fish is as old as British Columbia. At the turn of the 20th century, the B.C. government paid hunters a $2 bounty for every nose to protect the profitable fisheries. Later, the government deployed military gunner crews to exterminate what it called the “mammoth marauders,” according to media reports.
But a 1970s ban on the hunt and commercial harvests has allowed seals and sea lion populations to flourish. Warmer waters have also encouraged sea lions from California to migrate further north and stay in British Columbia, according to experts.
Many sport and commercial fishing advocates see the First Nation-led movement as their best chance at reducing seal and sea lion populations. Currently, B.C. Indigenous groups are allowed to kill seals and sea lions only for ceremonial purposes, but Pacific Balance Marine Management is teaching tribes how to harvest the animals for human food, pet food, clothing and oil as a way to earn income.
The group raises funds to offset hunter ammunition and gas expenses and support the Aboriginal Front Door Society in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, which serves sea lion (T’ibin) stew to homeless visitors.
But there is mixed opinion among scientists on whether the growing numbers of seals and sea lions is linked to the decline of salmon.
Benjamin Nelson, a quantitative ecologist, says his work with Dr. Andrew Trites at the University of British Columbia found an association between an abundance of seals and declines in salmon, but not a “smoking gun.”
“We think seals are threatening salmon but we haven’t proved it,” says Nelson, who says sea lions are more difficult to study because they migrate up and down the Pacific coast.
Some studies show that only a small minority of seals and sea lions consume salmon in large quantities, says Wilf Luedke, a district head at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). And some scientists worry that getting rid of seals could actually reduce salmon, as seals eat other fish that eat salmon.
“So as we try to figure out how to rebuild the salmon, we see seals as a potentially high-risk, but with a high degree of uncertainty.”
Dr. Carl Waters, professor emeritus of oceans and fisheries at UBC, argues that sea lions alone now consume more fish than all B.C. fisheries combined. Seal and sea lion diets are not high in salmon, Walters says, “but the types they target at particular times of the year, for example during spawning migrations,” have high impacts.
The regions’ beloved orcas are caught in this mesh as well. The southern resident group of whales eat only salmon and themselves are threatened by seals and sea lions. But transient orcas prey on seals and sea lions and they are thriving in greater numbers as seals and sea lions thrive, says Jay Ritchlin, a director general at the David Suzuki Foundation.
Marine ecology is complex, says Ritchlin, and isolating and killing one species to get more of another might do more harm than good.
“I think it’s a unique human attribute,” says Ritchlin, “to blame other animals for problems that we have caused and then kill them to get back to a situation that we undermined in the first place.” Humans,not seals or sea lions, have disrupted the ecological balance, he says. “We need to give our heads a shake.”
The province also needs to eliminate fish farms located near wild salmon, repair habitat where they spawn, reduce wastewater and restrict fishing to bring the ecosystem back in balance, says Ritchlin. “I’m not convinced that hunting seals is an important piece of the equation.”
Both sides of the debate support better understanding the interactions.
Benjamin thinks allowing small-scale First Nations harvesting as an experiment that is monitored is a good first step. And the stomach contents of animals harvested are being sent to researchers to study just how much salmon they are consuming.
And trying to understand the interaction of all species is essential, Kulchyski says. “For thousands of years, seals, sea lions, salmon and orcas have coexisted in a complex relationship.”
Ritchlin agrees, and his advice to visitors this summer is simple: “Come and enjoy and appreciate how complex this ecosystem is, and how it all works together.”
Katharine Lake Berz is a writer based on Vancouver Island and in Toronto