Sealing Fate

Photo by Andreas Trepte

I’ve got a soft spot for seals. Back in the day I built a fair bit of my truncated biology career on the little beach maggots; Pacific harbor seals formed the very heart of my doctoral thesis, in fact (Attila, Thalidomide, and Strangway: I salute you, wherever you ended up). They even netted me a modicum of unwarranted international recognition when New Scientist, covering a paper I’d put out in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, misplaced a decimal point and attributed unto me the discovery that a harbor seal’s core temperature can rise by 15°C in ninety minutes. (I subsequently wrote a paper on spontaneous combustion in harbor seals, but for some reason it never got past peer review.)

The next time I rose to any kind of prominence, it was over my involvement in a documentary on the seal-fisheries conflict on Canada’s east coast.  I’m not going to name that documentary, because it was cheesy and one-sided:  I was free to call bullshit on the Canadian government, but forbidden from doing the same to IFAW’s Brian Davies (who was no less full of shit, but who happened to be holding the purse-strings). I nearly quit my post-doc over that.  Still, it won a couple of awards and the usual government stamp of “antiCanadian Propaganda”, which was especially delicious in light of the fact that one of those awards had been bestowed by the Canadian gummint (albeit a different branch than the guys running the seal hunt).

A few years after that I signed a scientists’ petition publicly calling on the Canadian government to stop censoring their own biologists; mine was but one name of many but I ended up on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen anyway, which got me a hushed phone call from a civil servant friend in Ottawa telling me not to expect anyone out there to answer my calls for the foreseeable future. (No skin off my nose: I’d already moved on to more overt forms of science fiction by then.)

Bottom line, I’ve had a fair bit of experience both with phocid seals and with the federal institutions that claim to “manage” them.  So when I read that a new strain of mutated avian flu took out 162 harbor seals along the New England coast — and that that interspecies jump massively amps up their threat to Human health — let’s just say I’m not primarily worried about what H3N8 is going to do to the citizens of Maine. I’m not even worried about what H3N8 is going to do to the seals.  I’m worried about what people are going to do to the seals, using H3N8 as a pretext.

A bit of context.  As early as the nineteen seventies, Canadian fisheries biologists were warning anybody who’d listen that the North Atlantic cod stocks had been massively overfished and were in danger of imminent collapse if fishing quotas weren’t cut back. One of those listening was a bellicose fucktard by the name of John Crosbie, who would later go on to become Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: his response to said scientific expertise was to dismiss it as “demented”. (Although to be fair, at least he responded; most of his fellows in Cabinet just hummed real loud and pretended not to have heard.)

Modified from Lamiot (Wikipedia)

Of course, with the turn of the nineties the bottom dropped out of the North Atlantic cod population. Suddenly half the Maritimes were out of work.  The politicos swung into immediate action looking for someone to blame: foreign overfishing (although foreign interests only had access to a negligible 2% of the Grand Banks); the scientists, who really should have raised some kind of warning (in his autobiography Crosbie blamed federal biologists for “playing God” and assuring their blameless political masters that there was nothing to worry about); and those safest of scapegoats, seals, whose ravenous depredations had obviously driven the Atlantic cod population to commercial extinction. Something really had to be done about them.

It was (and is) certainly true that seals eat fish.  It was not true that they consumed significant quantities of cod. Cod made up only about 4% of their diet; the rest was trash fish of little or no commercial value. (One government study which purported to show a greater impact proved to have been founded on a misplaced decimal point which overestimated seal consumption by an order of magnitude. You’d be surprised how often that happens.) Of course this was besides the point, which was that seals can’t vote, or even talk back1. Unemployed Newfoundlanders, on the other hand, can do both: and what pandering politician has the balls to tell his constituents that they’ve really got no one to blame for this mess but themselves?

Scapesealing was especially welcome insofar as Canada’s traditional whitecoat hunt was seriously on the rocks after decades of being hammered by Brigitte Bardot and Loretta Swit and all those inconvenient cameras on the ice showing seal pups being skinned alive. If you couldn’t justify a hunt to supply a nonexistent European market, you could always justify it by citing Nature itself — which had been “kept in balance for hundreds of years by the seal hunt” as John Crosbie pointed out, and which was now in danger because the hunt had been so radically scaled back.  (Let us give thanks that the Europeans showed up when they did; it’s a wonder the cod hadn’t been utterly destroyed by all those tens of millennia of phocine rapacity that preceded our intervention.)

Anyway. The cod were commercially extinct. The feds belatedly put a moratorium on a species that nobody could catch anyway, and waited a few years for the stocks to rebound. The stocks hadn’t done that by the mid-nineties, when our Minister of Fisheries emerged from a conference on the plight of ol’ Gadus with a smile on his face and happy news on his tongue: the cod were well on their way to recovery, and there was no reason not to lift the moratorium and get back to business as usual. (A friend of mine, a fisheries biologist out of Memorial, shook his head when he told me that: “We’d  just gone through three days of research talks all saying that the cod were still on the rocks,” he said. “We were all, like, What conference was he at?”)

Good times, the nineties — or at least, interesting ones. An FoI request tendered by a group I was working with yielded an internal government memo acknowledging that their own data showed no evidence of  a significant seal/cod impact, and emphasizing the importance of keeping such information out of the public domain.  Fisheries and Oceans decided to stop referring to the cod worm by its real name and rechristen it “seal worm” instead, to increase the villainy quotient of harps and greys. (The seal huggers responded with a brilliant judo maneuver in which they threatened an ad campaign warning consumers away from worm-infested Atlantic cod — an inevitable corollary of the Feds’s seals-infect-our-cod schtick.  Don’t remember how that one shook out; I think maybe both sides stood down.)  Somewhere in there, responding to public outrage over the fact that the harp seal hunt killed “baby” seals, the feds reclassified any harp greater than two weeks old as an “adult”.  And so on.

Keep in mind, though: these were the good old days. This was a time when politicians were merely indifferent to science, not actively hostile to it. This was before we had an evangelical Christian Prime Minister who systematically dismantled scientific institutions not out of convenience but as a matter of  basic principle; before we had a Minister of Science & Technology who regarded evolution as a religious belief (and who then, backing down on the issue, cited Humanity’s use of sunscreen, running shoes, and high heels as examples of Evolution In Action). In the nineties, only the shameless opportunists ran the asylum: now it’s the fucking lunatics.

So when I see a paper that blames grey seals for increased cod mortality showing up in the National Post before it’s even gone out for peer review, I know that happy days are here again. When industry flacks use that to advocate for a bigger cull even as more-qualified folks (i.e., actual marine mammalogists) point out the flaws and biases in such research, I know they’ve never left. And when some new killer flu jumps from birds to seals, I don’t just see the usual concerns about human vulnerability. I see a brand-shiny-new excuse to scape the same old goat:  a kill not predicated on the Balance of Nature this time around, but  on that safest, most inane, and most effective of political slogans.

Won’t someone think of the Children?

If the Tories haven’t already seized on this, it’s only because they don’t read the science columns.



1  Except for a harbor seal named “Hoover“, down at the New England Aquarium. No, really. I met him myself back in ’83.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 7th, 2012 at 7:12 am and is filed under biology, marine, scilitics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

21 Responses to “Sealing Fate”

  1. EnsleyG

    Science. How quaint.

    It’s too bad that God is obviously anti-seal. Look at what happened when the Romans threw St. Thecla into that vat of killer seals: lightening-bolts and fried seal, that’s what!

    Now that I have put this on the series of tubes that Ted Stevens assures me is teh intrawebs, I feel sure that our seal problem will soon be dealt with.

  2. gawp

    The multi-species transmissibility of influenza is terrifying ( check out the *whale*, imagine a whale with the flu), though that diagram should have humans connected to every species directly via sewage, direct interaction, etc, speeding the transmission.

    All these species are getting exposed to different virus variants and the resulting viral orgy is endlessly shuffling the gene variants until they get a full house. And we’re boned.

    So, yeah. To end that metaphor, um. Checkmate?

  3. John Stotler

    Sorry for the question, but I’m an American.

    What’s a science column?

    (i kid, i kid)

  4. Lynn

    This sounds alot like the same thing that’s happened to wolves here in the states. People would rather absorb and spread misinformation than actually read the fucking research by biologists who work with said species.

    And as far as culls go, we could use one ourselves. Of course that’s just the misanthrope in me coming out. In the end though, our population numbers won’t be sustainable for very much longer.

  5. mkos

    Sometimes it strikes me that societal animus against cyclists and vegans has as much to do with maladaptive drives connected to economic self-preservation as anything else.

    Oh well, at least we don’t get culled like seals, that I know of, except when some driver has a severe attack of road rage.

    re Hoover (oh my!) I find myself wanting to read up on mimic animals as well, especially after visiting my friend and his friend, an African Gray parrot, the other night, who imitates many, many sounds, and so well that it is hard to tell if the phone is ringing or somebody just wants attention. Interesting how useful a tool anthropomorphosis is in getting humans to think about choices they make that effect animals.

  6. mkos

    ack, that should read

    “in getting humans to think about choices they make that effect OTHER animals.”

  7. vodkaferret

    “I subsequently wrote a paper on spontaneous combustion in harbor seals, but for some reason it never got past peer review.”

    I know this is a very serious post, and the whole thing is yet reason to spend most of my time beating my head against a very hard surface in despair at the idiocy and greed of our species…. but that is a paper I would love to read 🙂

    thanks for the laugh in the midst of a collapsing world.

  8. edwardsdigital

    …. And as far as culls go, we could use one ourselves. ….

    This is by far one of the most true statements I have heard in a long time. Its a shame that those who should be culled are the same that make the laws that stop us from doing it.

  9. mkos

    It darkly amuses me that a post against culls accretes comments in favor of them.

  10. 01

    Sometimes it strikes me that societal animus against cyclists and vegans has as much to do with maladaptive drives connected to economic self-preservation as anything else.

    Hmmm… allow me to explain how you cycling creatures look from the PoV of someone driving a car (do note that I don’t drive anymore since I have gotten meself a person to do that for me, so none of my grievances agains cyclistkind are “hot”)

    First, you are dangerous. Far more dangerous than another car. A careless collision with another car would likely result in no fatalities and no criminal prosecution, unless one or more of the drivers was extra-stupid (like, DIU/going at 100+ kph / head-on/etc. kind of stupid), since, you know, cars are designed to be very life-preserving these days.
    Meanwhile, killing you guys with a car is obviously easier, and it will end rather poorly for the driver, quite likely in a “criminal conviction” kind of poorly, which makes drivers extra-wary of you.

    Second, you guys are hard to spot. Even with all the reflectors and blickenlichten (and some of you have the shitty habit of wearing neither reflective clothing nor light signals during evening or even night), you’re way smaller than a car, which makes you harder to track and easier to loose sight of.

    Third, most of you guys, irrespective of gender and age, have that silly, childish, sometimes borderline retarded aggressive risk-taking attitude. You sneak your way in-between cars in traffic, taunting death, like some goddamn street ninjas (I don’t know if that behavior is due to the fact you know that the driver will be in hot water should your precious fluids get spilled, or you just happen to be unhealthily brave and like a challenge). It’s like you don’t know just how stupidly fragile human body is, or maybe you value carbon emission suppression more than you value your skeletal integrity, or something.

    All those things combined turn you from “fellow human being” into “active menace to a driver’s well being”.

    As for veganism, I dunno, I’m a live and let live kind of guy, I don’t really have problems with what people eat, but only for as long as they don’t have a problem with what I eat.
    And boy, do some vegans make a problem of what other people eat, probably as a way of climbing on a moral high horse. That, I have a kind of a mild problem with, cause it’s mighty annoying. The fact that some person has chosen to eat only a very limited subset of foods ? Not so much.

  11. rm3154

    OT, but in the general doom and gloom category

  12. Mr Non-Entity

    For what it’s worth, there was recently an advisory issued to people planning to attend agricultural fairs here in the States, telling them to avoid any contact with swine, as there appeared to be some fairly novel variety of Swine Flu making the rounds. No information was given as to whether any of it has jumped species to humans, but it happens often enough that some caution is doubtless warranted.

    One has to wonder what might happen if somehow our swine managed to get together with your seals and they had a little “let’s exchange influenza strains” party. Clearly there isn’t any science on this, at least not yet, though reading your remarks about the perfidy of your Fisheries ministry higher-ups, probably they wouldn’t need any science to declare that the seals have to go because after all they are clearly going to be the source of the Next Big Plague. The only cure, of course, will be Cod Liver Oil.

    I don’t suppose I need to tell you what you already know, be at least a bit wary of American Pigs until this flu thing dies down.

  13. mkos

    re 01

    It interests me how many drivers assume all cyclists are irresponsible assholes. Like asshole drivers, they’re just more visible.

    There are good drivers and crap drivers, good cyclists and crap cyclists. Please do not assume we’re all the same.

    I am responsible and visible, and most of the other cyclists I know are the same, because we commute every day and care about our own safety and that of others.

    I’m sure you’re a fine driver, considering that you put so much thought into describing the ways you feel endangered by cyclists

    My only animus against drivers is the ones who expect me to do dangerous and illegal things because they do not know the law (e.g. let them turn when there’s a no right on red sign, be in a lane on the opposite side of the road than the one I need to be in to make the turn I am about to make) or who do dumb crap that endangers everyone on the road.

    I don’t care what anyone else eats (ok, maybe my husband, but I trust him not to malnourish himself for the most part) and I ride responsibly. I am a vegan because it makes sense to me for me to be a vegan, and I’m happy to give info to folks who ask for it. That’s it.

    And that’s the end of my comments, I’ve no interest in starting a flame war ( ;

    Live and let live.

  14. whoever

    (‘Cause I know you love being accurate, Crosbie or Crosby?).

    “…now it’s the fucking lunatics.”

    Exactly. Pick a topic of importance and/or a large organization and this seems to be the case.

  15. gawp

    re: John Crosbie (great description btw), I once heard someone describe the “Crosbie” as the unit of measure for political stupidity. Like the Farad, or Coulomb, it’s simply too large for normal usage, so most political stupidity is measured in milli- or micro-Crosbies.

  16. Peter Watts

    whoever: (‘Cause I know you love being accurate, Crosbie or Crosby?).

    Arrgh. Yes, Crosbie. Fixed. Thanks.

  17. Lee

    As a christian.. um… we’re not all loonies… honest! *ducks behind a corner*

    …I like your books a lot, even if they are really dark. (As long as I remember that’s par for the course, I usually surface okay. Haha!)

    As far as the topic… so WHY do they want to kill these seals, when there’s obviously no need? For shits and giggles/as a scape goat? Why do people gotta be such jerks?

  18. whoever

    As far as the topic… so WHY do they want to kill these seals, when there’s obviously no need?For shits and giggles/as a scape goat? Why do people gotta be such jerks?

    Your perfect storm of an answer: Because they refuse to take any personal responsibility (instead choosing to foist same on others where sex is concerned). The Emperor has no clothes and they think it more important to make sure no one is able to point that out rather than sit down at the sewing machine and fix the problem. It doesn’t make anyone money to stop fishing. Because (sorry, I know it ain’t easy) those who disagree and yet fit into the same general groupings don’t do enough to straighten out their self-proclaimed leadership out of fear, peer pressure, authoritarianism. Because the “left’ is too reasonable and has unshakable faith that others just need to “see the light.” Because it’s too hard to hold those actually responsible accountable.

    In essence, the system is completely broken EXCEPT for the one function is does well: ensuring that it continues to operate without being fixed.

  19. RMDudu

    They want to kill the seals ’cause that would divert public opinion and public interest away from the real problems that they were supposed to solve a long time ago. That’s politics, lately: lie, get an office for at least one term, be a parasite and lie even more, kiss asses, then run again for another term…
    Mind you, I’m a Romanian and I’ve seen a lot of politicians screwing up science, Nature and economics, then running shamelessly again for another and another term…
    Science is good for them only if it provides money for the next campaign or if it is supporting some bullshit they’ve thrown on their constituents…
    Oh, and I _love_ the Crosbie unit. Too sad that it’s not very popular in my area.

  20. OldMiser

    Peter, there is one remaining “Crosby,” in the paragraph beginning with the word “Scapesealing.”

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