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Paul Watson spices up Canada seal hunt fight

Controversial Whale Wars captain Paul Watson has spiced up opposition to the Canada seal hunt -- offering $50,000 to anyone who can prove Harp seals wastefully eat cod. Canadian senators – in a snub to the EU – promise to keep seal meat on Parliament's menu for as long as the animals are in season.

By Staff writer / March 9, 2010

A baby harp seal on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Paul Watson has challenged Canada's annual seal hunt by offering a reward to anyone who can prove the seals pose a threat to the Canadian fishing industry.

Stewart Cook/IFAW/EPA

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It doesn't have quite the drama and global appeal as his Whale Wars. But Sea Shepherd captain and Canadian Paul Watson reentered the emotional debate over Canada's annual seal hunt last month, with predictable results.

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Fishermen on the Atlantic coast of Canada have complained for years that harp seals have been depleting stocks of cod, and that a global campaign to put Canada's sealers out of business – most based in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia – could also spell doom for its fishermen, who bring in about $30 million worth of Atlantic cod a year.

Some fishermen believe that the seals preferentially dine on the nutrient-rich livers and bellies of the cod, leaving the rest to go to waste and requiring more fish to be killed to make a meal. Mr. Watson says that's absurd, and has offered $50,000 to anyone who can provide video evidence of the practice. The move is designed to generate publicity and support for the campaign to end what he an many others consider a barbaric practice.

That claim echoes past claims about other other predators that were later proved to be false (ranchers and hunters have at various times claimed that wolves and coyotes were indiscriminate killers). But there does appear to be a grain of truth here. In a 2005 report, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that seals are an important predator – even though cod are preyed upon at various stages in their life cycle by squid, minke whales, halibut, and other cod. While the seals mostly feed on smaller fish, the report found that "large cod probably have few natural predators, but seals can prey upon them by belly-feeding."

Still, the presence of large apex predators like seals are typically a sign of a healthy and productive ecosystem, and human fishing activity – whether it targets North Atlantic cod or bluefin tuna – is the reason for the collapse of fish stocks worldwide. And if seals were taken out of the picture, the population of squid – which eat juvenile cod and are in turn eaten by the seals – might well explode.

"There's not a single speck of evidence that the seals are the problem," says Sheryl Fink, a Canadian researcher for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "Of course it’s easier to blame a predator rather than blaming our own overfishing or mismanagement. Close fisheries? Politicians don’t want to do that, so they leave fisheries open far too long. And then when they decline, they blame the seals."

Seal: It's what's for lunch

Nevertheless, Canada's Parliament, which has strongly supported the hunt, isn't taking any of this lying down. In fact, it's taking it to lunch. On Wednesday, the legislators' lunch is scheduled to revolve around "double smoked, bacon-wrapped seal loin," according to a menu released to the press, though a medley of organic Canadian vegetables is also on offer. The Parliament press office said it expects to serve one seal dish a week until the hunt ends in May.

"Next week, when my colleagues and I will eat seal meat in the parliamentary restaurant, we will not be doing this as a 'gimmick,' " Quebec Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette wrote on her website. Instead, the meal will be "a testament to the solidarity of parliamentarians who support Canadians who fully contribute to the prosperity and diversity of this country."

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