Cull of 220,000 seals on Sable Island would cost $35 million: study

A seal colony is found on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

HALIFAX—The windswept beaches of Sable Island would become a scene of slaughter if the federal government adopts the results of a study that explores in chilling detail how 220,000 of the island’s grey seals could be exterminated over five years.

The 2009 feasibility study, compiled for the federal Fisheries Department, says the first year of a proposed cull would target 100,000 seals, requiring a team of 20 specially trained hunters with silenced rifles to kill 4,000 seals per day during the dead of winter.

“At this production rate, a tandem dump truck would be filled with seals approximately every 10 minutes — seven hours per day for 25 days,” says the 68-page study, drafted by engineering consultants at Halifax-based CBCL Ltd.

The hunters’ rifles would be equipped with silencers to avoid spooking the herd, the report says. Since silencers are a prohibited device in Canada, the federal government would be required to get a special permit to import them from the United States.

“To avoid suffering, animals should be killed by a well-aimed shot to the head,” the study says. “Any orphaned pup should be killed lest it starves to death.”

The slaughtered seals, some of them weighing more than 350 kilograms, would then be grabbed by one of 30 modified heavy loaders and carried to portable incinerators at five work camps set up across the island.

The consultants also look at storing the remains until the summer months, when containers would be shipped to a new $100,000 base in mainland Nova Scotia and later dumped at a dedicated landfill site.

“It would be a tremendously complicated undertaking and it would be very expensive,” Gus van Helvoort, the department’s director for fisheries management for the Maritimes region, said in an interview.

“Is it doable? I think it is doable. Is it the right thing to do? At this juncture, that’s not the purpose of the report.”   He stressed that the study is a technical evaluation of logistics, not a decision-making document.

“This came about as a result of questions from industry on what it would take to address the seal problem,” he said. “The seal population has increased exponentially on Sable Island over the last 15 years.”

He said an international meeting of fisheries researchers later this year will provide a scientific basis for any government decisions made about the Sable Island seals.

Nova Scotia’s fisheries minister, Sterling Belliveau, says the province’s NDP government is not opposed to a cull on the island, which is destined to become a national park.

While many Canadians regard Sable Island as a wild and unspoiled oasis worthy of park status, commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia see the island very differently.

They say the grey seals that frequent the island are responsible for eating too many commercially valuable fish, particularly cod. The seals are also blamed for ruining many of the fish that are left by leaving them infected with parasites called sealworms.

The study notes that the east coast grey seal population has grown from 20,000 animals in the 1970s to more than 300,000 today.

About 80 per cent of all grey seal pups are born on Sable Island, about 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax.

The study was obtained through the Access to Information Act by The Coast, a Halifax-based weekly tabloid. Its release comes a week after federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice confirmed the island, famous for its 400 wild horses and fragile ecosystem, will become a national park.

The study concludes that the cull and subsequent disposal would cost roughly $35 million over five years.

The hunt would take place on the island’s beaches between December and February when the females are giving birth to their pups.

The report concludes that a cull of 20,000 annually would be more feasible.

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