by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Narwhals and Seals — a Profound Difference
Canada’s Northwest Territories’ government is angry at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Why? Well, it’s complicated, but put simply the irritation stems from the DFO’s unwillingness to rubber-stamp permits that would allow the export of narwhal tusks. The narwhal is a small, arctic whale with one tooth (rarely two teeth) extending through the upper lip in a long, slender, spiraling tusk. About 120 of these ivory tusks are exported each year.
(Photo by Glenn Williams)
The narwhal is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty to which Canada is signatory. In order for a permit to be issued, something called a “non-detriment” finding is required. That means that the country issuing the permit can demonstrate that the trade does not endanger the species.
Caught between the demands of the fishing industry for ever more fish, and the need for prudent cuts to quotas in the interest of conservation, the DFO’s default position has been to defer to the fishing industry, or to be more accurate, the demands of political masters. Fishermen vote; fish don’t. It’s essentially that simple. Of course whales, like seals, are not fish but under Canadian law they are, alas, managed by the DFO. Why, then, this sudden prudence regarding narwhals?
There is no such concern about harp seals, with the DFO continuing to set absurdly high quotas for them, in the 300,000 range, in spite of concerns about declines caused by rising sea temperatures reducing the amount of ice available for the seals to whelp on the ice, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with subsequent decline in numbers of young surviving. The seals need the ice in order to produce viable young.
The difference may be that narwhals are listed under CITES, and the harp seals are not.
The DFO sets quotas based on computer models. These are determinations made by entering a set of factors into a model designed to project the results of removing various numbers of animals from the population. The modeling used for the seals is based on series of estimates of harp seal pup production made every few years. The actual number of seals is unknown and unknowable, but guesses are made. A similarly important factor is the reproduction rate, also estimated after the fact. Add in some correction factors and some guesses and presto, DFO scientists produce an estimate of population size. The actual number of seals, however, is unknown and unknowable.
Each “census” produces a number, a datum, that not only influences the estimate of what the future population will be, but retroactively influences past estimates. One bewildering result is that population size estimates for a single year in the distant past have been known to be increased by as much as a million animals, retroactively!
I know it sounds like mumble-jumble, and that’s because it is, closer to junk real science than science, but complex enough to defy critical analysis by non-scientists, journalists and politicians, and thus an effective smokescreen of arcane rationality is produced. Harp seals have been so demonized as competitors for commercial fish species that many folks in eastern Canada are convinced that the fewer seals, the better. There is, in short, no great incentive to get it right, nor effective oversight. It took a seal biologist 40 minutes to explain to me how, in the eyes of the DFO, a seal population can increase years later. Most folks simply lack the means to critically examine DFO methodology as it applies to setting seal hunt quotas.
Not so the narwhal. Precisely because it is listed on Appendix II of CITES and is also a high-profile species who, unlike harp seals, does not, by nature, occur in large numbers, the DFO understands — even if the Northwest Territories does not — that the kind of modeling used to justify seal hunt quotas won’t wash when applied to narwhals.
“We felt that if we didn’t respond to the science advice, as we should, and we didn’t meet our international obligations, we could certainly find ourselves at CITES facing a complete ban on exports from Canada,” Sylvie Lapointe, the DFO’s director of international fisheries management, told CBC News.
According to the DFO, four of six narwhal populations in Canada are considered to be at risk, and the agency knows full well that it can’t fudge or hide the fact, and that its figures and modeling will be critically analyzed by top experts if it dares to try. The seals have no such protection.