Almost every saltwater dock that has fish cleaning stations will have seals swimming about seeking some tidbits. People love to see those big eyes staring back looking for a treat.
Thing is, seals have become accustomed to being fed by humans and they have come to depend on these handouts.
Amendments are being made to the Fisheries Act which will make it illegal to feed, touch, swim or interact with marine mammals. These marine mammals include harbour seals.
Elden Smith, who runs Jock’s Dock, is used to seeing the seals gather when the fishers come in. The salmon get cleaned and the leftovers get tossed into the water, but people are not supposed to feed the seals.
“People love seeing them and feeding them,” said Smith. “They are like squirrels in a park, everybody does it (feeding seals), especially charters.”
While throwing the odd scrap or two into the water seems pretty normal, it will soon be illegal, which doesn’t necessarily sit well with Smith.
He said if the seals get salmon scraps they are not going after the wild salmon, and there have been instances where harbour seals have gone after the hatchery fish and wiped out the release.
“There used to be a bounty of $50 a nose on hair fur seals and harbour seals,” he said. “That was way back when salmon were more plentiful.”
He did say there is a fine line between feeding and teasing the seals. People often like to cajole them onto docks, which could prove to be dangerous as a seal will bite or grab the hand that feeds them. Jock’s Dock has signs warning people not to feed seals as a result.
Smith thinks people are being over-regulated and there are too many seals, though in general, charter fishing operator Steve Arnett doesn’t think people should feed seals as they become reliant on it and they like the easy treat.
“People shouldn’t feed them, they are kind of cute at the dock. Let’s face it with any wild animal or mammal you are taking a chance. It’s nice to do it but in the end is it a good thing? A seal could do some damage to you – they have teeth,” Arnett said.
“The amendments are in process in Ottawa and we are still waiting,” said Paul Cottrell, Pacific marine mammal coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “I’m hoping it comes through then it will be illegal to feed seals.”
He said one of the dangers of feeding seals is that they can become habituated to humans and can become aggressive. Such is the case of the little girl in West Vancouver who was pulled into the water by a seal. Luckily, said Cottrell, she had a lifejacket on.
He cautions people to be careful around marine wildlife and not let sea mammals become habituated to humans. Harbour seals are not a species at risk or endangered anywhere along Canada’s coast or in Europe.