Winner of the 2017/2018 BCM popular science writing prize.
2017/2018 BCM Student Cathy Clegg
Let’s take a journey together to the frozen north-eastern coastline of Canada.
Newfoundland is surrounded by the vast and foreboding Atlantic ocean.
On shore are the welcoming and uniquely coloured houses – often with traditional Canadian music (yes, we do have traditional music) pouring out the windows and doors. What you’re also likely to see are seals warming themselves on the shore. What you are less likely to see, other than perhaps in a restaurant, are the salmon that live under the water. This may come as sort of a weird question but, which one, the seal or the fish, would you like to eat?
No, this isn’t some weird blog version of “Would you rather…”. This is a legitimate question that Canadians must ask themselves. While seal has been eaten by people in Newfoundland and Labrador for centuries, it is also an option in Canada’s largest city. Kū-kŭm Kitchen in Toronto has caused a really interesting stir (kitchen pun absolutely intended) by offering seal meat on their menu. If you are cringing, you are not alone. This has received a dizzying amount of negative international attention, not only from potential consumers but also from activist groups like PETA and IFAW.
Kū-kŭm Kitchen (and other seal hunting proponents) have fallen victim to the “cute and fuzzy factor”. This trend is described as individuals, and more worryingly, conservation groups which give disproportionate attention to the animals that are cuter, cuddlier and who give great attention to their young. In particular, this trend suggests that cuter creatures are put at the forefront of conservation efforts.
This is often to the ultimate detriment of the uglier, less desirable creatures who may need more help from conservation groups. This term is so perfectly epitomized by the seal issue in Canada; seal numbers are in the millions. Many of the seal species are listed as abundant or of least concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
Let’s consider the other option: fish. Newfoundland has been defined by its fishing culture and economy. So strong is this culture that it is hard to imagine a trip to Newfoundland without some sort of a fruit of the sea. But perhaps it is time for us to consider this choice more critically. Not only was there a completely devastating collapse in cod fisheries in the early 1990s, there is now a huge problem surrounding Atlantic salmon. While the cod have begun to make a comeback, the salmon are less likely to do so. Many populations of wild Atlantic salmon or Salmo salar have been deemed endangered by COSEWIC. More worrying is the fact that many of these populations have little or no chance of rescue.
Habitat destruction and changes to ocean ecosystems (eg. warming waters) threaten wild populations. More interestingly, many of the wild populations have also been interbreeding with farmed Atlantic salmon that have escaped from their nets. One could imagine that this interbreeding may not be bad especially
if they are the same species.
In fact, one might even personify the salmon as Romeo and Juliet – two star-cross’d lovers who have struggled against confines of net and ocean currents to briefly love and then die together. The reality, while equally as tragic, is far less romantic. The interbreeding of these two groups decreases the proportion of wild DNA, making these salmon genetically endangered. Without going too far into the molecular biology, this endangerment can lead to the extinction of the wild genetic line.
Unlike the seals, Atlantic salmon have received less NGO or public attention – far fewer people want to donate money to save a stinky fish, instead believing they could save an adorably fluffy baby seal. All is not lost for the salmon. There are organizations like The Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation that are supporting projects to not only promote wild populations but also limit the amount of damage from farmed populations. Additionally, consumers such as yourself can make more sustainable selections in restaurants or the grocery store. So, if you are lucky enough to find yourself surrounded by the brightly coloured homes of Newfie fishermen listening to the music pouring out of kitchens, and you find yourself at a restaurant that serves both Atlantic salmon and seal, which choice will you make?