CODROY VALLEY – The growing number of seals in the Grand Codroy River has some residents worried about the potential impact on the estuary, which is is an internationally recognized RAMSAR protected wetland. The wetland is home to bird species that are found nowhere else in Newfoundland and attracts tourists who visit the province specifically to watch the birds.
“Obviously it affects it if they’re eating the fish, and it is a salmon river,” says Claudelle Devoe, owner/operator of Codroy Valley Cottage Country. “We’ve been here 17 years. They’ve never been here before that.”
Devoe’s cabins are nestled immediately beside the river, and this is not the first time she’s seen seals. Back in 2017 she sent pictures into the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which identified them as harbour seals and assured her that they would not negatively impact the birds. At that time only a few seals were in the river, but Devoe has recently counted up to 80 resting on a nearby sandbar and is worried the growing number means less fish for the birds.
“How many more are we going to get and what are the effects going to be?” asked Devoe. “We used to have eel fishermen here years ago, but they don’t come here anymore. They’re probably eating everything here.”
There is no cause to worry about the birds or the impact on the river says Garry Stenson, a Research Scientist and the Head of the Marine Mammal and Science Branch with DFO.
“Seals are part of a natural eco-system,” says Stenson via phone interview. “Historically harbour seals are not uncommon on the West Coast. We’ve got data from bounty returns that goes back to the 40s and 50s.”
Though Stenson cannot identify for sure what species is currently in the Grand Codroy River without examining photos, grey seals in the area wouldn’t be uncommon either. Colonies of harbour seals have been regularly reported along this coast and particularly in the Port au Port peninsula since the 70s.
Grey seals don’t winter in Newfoundland and the vast majority breed on Sable Island, and only a small proportion of the overall number will return in late spring. Most of the seals observed on the West Coast are harbour seals.
“Harbour seals were reduced significantly through bounty programs and hunting. Since about the early 1970s they’ve been protected,” notes Stenson. “Harbour seals tend to be more resident in the sense that they’ll stick around the same area for much of the year. They don’t migrate the way the other seals do.”
They’re also more easily observed because unlike other species of seals they tend to haul themselves out on land around low tide. Stenson says that harbour seals tend to eat a variety of small fish and invertebrates, particularly the sand lance.
“It’s a real mix,” admits Stenson. “They’ll move into a river if there’s a good amount of food available.”
He also says there’s no evidence that the seals are having a negative impact on the salmon population. Research on harp seals in the Notre Dame Bay area where they were hanging around a salmon river revealed they weren’t eating the smolt, but were actually focused on the herring swimming near the mouth of the river.
“I’ve talked to our salmon people about the Grand River, and from what I can gather from them, they don’t have a lot of information on the Grand Codroy itself but the rivers in the area are not showing anything unusual,” says Stenson.
If the seals were having an impact on the fish, the river itself would differ noticeably from nearby surrounding rivers, and that’s not currently the case in the Grand Codroy River. Researchers with DFO have collectors in the area who gather materials for further study, including the occasional seal, so that its stomach contents can be examined.
Still, data on the harbour seals has taken a back seat to research on seals elsewhere, something Stenson hopes to remedy soon.
“We don’t have very good estimates of harbour seal numbers. We’re working on that,” says Stenson.
Currently he’s in year two of a shoreline study of seals in Atlantic Canada, which is a massive undertaking. Last year the study took a look at seals along the coastline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and this year it was Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. Next year’s plan is to tackle Newfoundland.
“They did do the west coast of Newfoundland last year,” says Stenson.
Researchers used a plane to fly around the Southwest corner looking for seals in June, just after the pupping period, but there were no seals observed in Codroy. Stenson says that although there isn’t much data, he estimates the harbour seal population somewhere around 30 thousand to 40 thousand animals in all of Atlantic Canada, with most based in the Bay of Fundy.
“We know that the seals belong there,” says Stenson. “They’re part of a normal ecosystem.”
Although they may be part of the ecosystem, not all of the observers watching them sun on sandbars in the Grand Codroy seem excited that the seals are growing in number on the Grand Codroy River.
“The tourists love looking at them but the locals hate them,” notes Devoe.
For those who have taken to seal watching, DFO welcomes data about the Grand Codroy River population. This could be as simple as someone doing a head count while sitting outside on their balcony or even just once a week on their Sunday morning walk, around low tide.
“We’re always interested in information,” says Stenson. “When do they start seeing them? When do they leave? How long are they there for? Are they there for a month? Are they there for two months? That’s the kind of thing that helps us understand what they’re doing.”
Anyone wishing to send in information and photos can email Garry at firstname.lastname@example.org.