Shoot the seal - or stop industrial fishing?

29 February, 2024

I am now forbidden to fish for cod and the pike has disappeared from my bay. I’m looking for scapegoats. Who is responsible for the condition below the surface in the Baltic Sea?

Small-scale professional fishermen along the east coast have been raising the alarm for several years that the herring has declined sharply. At the same time, the large-scale trawling in the open sea has continued to catch large quantities, which have gone directly to the fishmeal factories in Denmark.

According to SLU, there is a direct connection between industrial fishing and the disappearance of herrings on the coast. For us consumers, this is most evident in the lack of fresh fish in the shops. Even the “surströmming” (avid herring) manufacturers testify to the crisis. It is mainly the large Baltic Sea herring that have been fished out.

The European Commission proposed last autumn that all fishing should be stopped, based on scientific advice. But EU fisheries ministers decided that fishing would be allowed to continue after all. This means taking a risk: The fishing industry’s economy is prioritized over the ecology of the Baltic Sea. Which in the longer term also threatens the fishing industry… but the politicians don’t seem to understand that.

The herring can be seen as the first floor of the Baltic Sea ecosystem. If you demolish the first floor, the whole house collapses; The Baltic Sea herring is a staple food for a range of predatory fish, as well as for seabirds and seals.

In my home areas in Blekinge, the number of seals has grown strongly in recent decades. I remember my surprise and joy when I saw my first seal about 15 years ago. Nowadays, the seal is a common sight in the archipelago – loved by tourists, frowned upon by fishermen.

Today, increasingly thin seals are reported along the entire east coast, which indicates that the animals are getting too little food. They are forced to seek their way further and further into the archipelago, where they eat up sensitive predatory fish stocks. Many of Sweden’s 1.7 million recreational fishermen can testify that pike and perch have disappeared from their bays. They have been replaced by large stickleback, which has become the ruler of the coastal zone. The big tern eats stickleback and when it disappears, the big stickleback takes over. It eats the eggs and larvae of the predatory fish, as well as the crustaceans which, with their grazing, counteract eutrophication.

According to a new study from SLU, published in Nature Communications, the stickleback’s position is strengthened by seals and cormorants eating the predatory fish. Both species have increased sharply, write the researchers, who are “surprised that seals and cormorants have such a large effect”.

The study’s main author, researcher Agnes Olin, is asked the difficult question in Dagens Nyheter:

Does that mean more seals and cormorants should be shot?

Olin replies:

– It is not part of my role as a researcher to decide which measures should be put in place. But I think it is important to remember that there are also other options, for example reducing the heavy fishing pressure on the Baltic herring in the Baltic Sea to increase the availability of other food for the seal and the cormorant.

Agnes Olin thus sees two alternatives: to shoot more seals or to reduce large-scale industrial fishing.

But do we have time to wait for the politicians to come to their senses and severely limit or stop large-scale fishing? Shall we let the ocean become overgrown with algae, the seals starve, and just watch as the stickleback munch on the remaining predatory fish eggs?

Sweden has long allowed protective hunting of seals and since 2022 also licensed hunting. Hunting has mainly been added to protect coastal fishing from destroyed nets and smaller catches. The seal hunt is controversial. But if the seal contributes to making the sea sicker, does it become easier to shoot it?

Human predation has forced the seal to new hunting grounds to survive. This affects the ecology of the coast and the livelihood of professional fishermen. Does that give us the right to shoot the seal, to make the sea healthier in the short term?

The question is biological, philosophical, moral; man has claimed the right to rule over life below the surface. Predation has made the sea increasingly sicker and forced animals such as the seal to try to adapt. Then we shoot it.

No matter how I twist and turn the question, I don’t have a ready answer. I don’t want the seal to be shot. I don’t want my sea to get sicker.

For me, there is only one reasonable measure: Stop the predatory fishing – now!

Chronicler: Peter Löfgren
Foto: Johan Candert, Simon Stanford

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