First Nation seeks permit to hunt sea lions, seals; expects long wait

A First Nations group lobbying for a commercial hunt on seals and sea lions doesn’t expect to get its permit approved for at least the next two years.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada returned a permit application to Pacific Balance Marine Management with a request for more information to continue the application process, said the group’s president, Tom Sewid.

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Sewid said given the amount of work to address the request, they don’t expect to receive a permit in 2020 or 2021.

The group has been pushing for a commercial hunt on pinnipeds — marine mammals with front and rear flippers — in B.C. for the last two years, arguing the protection of seals and sea lions has led to an overpopulation of the animals, and their appetite for salmon is hurting fish stocks.

“We’re not saying we want to harvest them all. We want controlled numbers to bring balance,” said Sewid, who is Kwakwaka’wakw from Alert Bay.

The commercial fisherman said last year’s fishing season was difficult for those in the industry, many of whom lost significant income as a result of dwindling stocks. The Pacific Balance Marine Management group wants to see a commercial fishery for pinnipeds, so fishermen can sell blubber, meat and hides to generate income.

Animal-rights group Animal Alliance of Canada, which has been fighting the permit proposal for nearly two years, was “ecstatic” to hear the permit had not been approved, said West Coast director Jordan Reichert.

“A primary issue of concern to us is cruelty to the animals,” said Reichert, adding the alliance was also worried about the impact of a pinniped hunt on other species.

Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, said there’s not enough evidence that seals and sea lions are to blame for poor salmon stocks.

“There’s no scientific consensus on whether this is the solution,” he said.

Trites said there’s low confidence in mathematical modelling that suggests reducing the number of seals and sea lions would protect salmon. A hunt could, however, affect transient killer whales, which feed on seals and sea lions, he said.

Hunting seals and sea lions is generally banned in B.C., with exceptions for Indigenous rights to harvest for food, social and ceremonial reasons.

Sewid said he’s encouraging Indigenous people to exercise their rights to harvest seals and sea lions to protect salmon stocks.

“I’m telling them if you really think your salmon is precious, then you might want to start picking up your harvest under traditional [rights],” he said.

Sewid said he’s waiting to hear from others in his group about next steps for the application. Some are frustrated with the process, while others want to keep working toward a permit, he said.

A spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in an email they’re still working through a multi-year review process with Pacific Balance Marine Management.

Lara Sloan said the review includes considerations related to ecosystems, biodiversity and harvest methods.

“The proposal review process will ensure that a wide range of biological, environmental, socio-economic and other factors are considered before proceeding with the establishment of a new fishery,” she said.

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