What we heard report: Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations and the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations

Executive summary

In 2019, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) informed wild capture commercial fisheries and aquaculture operators that the Department would immediately cease to authorize the lethal removal of nuisance seals for the protection of fishing equipment, in policy, and pursue regulatory amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) and Pacific Aquaculture Regulations (PAR). The policy decision was the first step in Canada’s compliance with the United States (U.S.) Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) Import Provisions. The MMPA Import Provisions will prohibit U.S. market access for fish and fish products from nations without comparable regulatory programs to the U.S. for the protection of marine mammals. Regulatory amendments must be pursued for Canadian fish and fish products to achieve long-term U.S. market access.

DFO held a 89-day public comment period on the proposed regulatory amendments to the MMR and PAR to modify the Minister’s authority to authorize the lethal removal of nuisance seals. While the public comment period was open to all Canadians, the Department wanted to understand better the impacts of the proposed regulatory amendments for aquaculture operations and commercial fish harvesting industries. In particular, the Department asked respondents to identify potential financial implications.

Comments were received from 22 respondents from aquaculture and wild capture fisheries industries, as well as the general public. Almost half (46%) of all respondents supported the proposed amendments while approximately a third (36%) of respondents did not support the amendments. The remainder (18%) were neutral in their views. Industry associations representing aquaculture and fish harvesters were supportive of the amendments and commented on the importance of maintaining U.S. market access for their industry members. Most comments focused on increased gear, bait and maintenance costs and managing seal populations. Comments received will help inform the regulatory amendment package for Canada Gazette, Part I in winter of 2021.

Overview

DFO sought feedback on proposed amendments to the MMR and the PAR under the Fisheries Act that would remove the Minister's authority to issue licences to fish for nuisance seals (including sea lions) under the MMR or to authorize the lethal removal of nuisance seals in aquaculture licences under PAR, for the protection of fishing and aquaculture equipment. The proposed amendments also include an exemption to the prohibition on disturbing, including lethal removal, of marine mammals: a) where there is an imminent threat to human health and safety; and b) where the humane dispatch of a marine mammal, including seals, is imminently necessary to avoid serious injury, additional injury, or death due to entanglement in fishing gear or debris.

The objective of the public comment period was to solicit public and industry feedback. While the public comment period sought feedback from the general public, it targeted wild capture commercial fishers and aquaculture operators. In particular, the Department was interested in better understanding potential impacts to operating costs and other business impacts to industry. Over three-quarters of respondents self-identified as fish harvesters, the remaining quarter of respondents identified as aquaculture operators or neither fish harvesters nor aquaculture operators. Almost half (46%) of all respondents supported the proposed amendments while 36% did not support and 18% of respondents were neutral.

Process

The public comment period was open for 89 days from July 6, 2020 to October 2, 2020. Wild capture commercial fishers and aquaculture operators, Indigenous People and the general public were welcome to submit their views on the proposed amendments. Comments were accepted through written submissions or anonymous web form. The Department informed the public and key stakeholders about the public comment period through a series of Tweets issued from the DFO Twitter account, as well as direct outreach to industry associations. A total of 20 anonymous web form submissions and two written email submissions were received.

Emergent themes

Most comments fell under two overarching, but connected, themes: concerns about an overabundant seal population and potential increased operating costs due to seal interactions. Other comments included the need to protect human safety, and to respect Canadian sovereignty. It is important to note that the Department specifically asked respondents to identify impacts on operating costs. While half of the respondents indicated that they anticipated increased operating costs, many commenters also spoke about the importance of maintaining U.S. market access.

Theme 1: Concerns about overabundant seal population

About half the commenters raised concerns about an overabundant seal population. Comments varied from calling on the Department to address or manage the seal population, to concerns regarding large seal populations, which respondents believe are damaging fish stocks through predation.

More specifically, the Department received several comments expressing concern about uncontrolled seal populations in parts of the East Coast making it difficult to fish due to seals preying on species commonly fished by commercial fish harvesters. One commenter said, without fish to harvest, having access to the American market does not matter. While another respondent said, left unchecked, seals consume a large amount of seafood. Other respondents voiced their worries related to large seal populations exploiting sensitive or recovering fish stocks. The Department heard respondents request that the regulatory amendment not impede the ability of the Minister to remove nuisance seals for the protection of catadromous and anadromous fish stocks, and highlighted the ability of U.S. wildlife managers to lethally remove nuisance seals damaging sensitive fish stocks.

Theme 2: Increased operating costs due to seal interactions

Linked to concerns about an overabundant seal population, the Department heard fish harvesters, in particular, raise concerns about increased operating costs because seals damage catch, bait and/or gear. Half of all comments received through the online form or written comments indicated a concern for increased operating costs as a result of interactions with seals. Several fish harvesters reported anticipating higher operating costs due to seals removing bait from lobster traps, while another respondent said they have lost catch when seals steal fish from gillnets.

Theme 3: Other comments - Canadian sovereignty, human safety and humane dispatch

A few respondents made comments regarding Canadian sovereignty. Some respondents suggested that the Department’s should not comply with requests from foreign governments to modify its regulatory framework or that the proposed changes do not consider the unique situation of Canadian fisheries, while other respondents questioned DFO’s role in maintaining access to foreign markets. At the same time, other comments did emphasize the importance of the U.S. fish and seafood market for Canadian aquaculture and commercial fish harvesting industries.

Additionally, one respondent highlighted the importance of further health and safety practices in the absence of the lethal removal of nuisance seals, and suggested the Department consider a proposed approach to managing seals that have demonstrated repeated aggressive behaviour to humans and gear. Finally, a commenter raised concerns about the proposed humane dispatch provision, suggesting that it could be used by industry as a loophole to the lethal removal of nuisance seals for the protection of fishing equipment.

Conclusion and next steps

DFO thanks everyone who responded to the online web form and submitted written email comments. Comments will be considered as the Department finalizes the regulatory package for Canada Gazette, Part I in winter 2021.

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