Complexity of Ecosystems

Devil in the Deep Blue Sea examines the political and ecological ramifications of the collapse of the cod industry on the seals using the grey seals in Atlantic Canada as a case study. Pannozzo explores the historical changes within the cod industry, the seal populations and the relationship between the two species. Many fishermen blame the collapse of cod populations on the grey seals and in an effort to appease these families (and to meet their own interests), the government has enacted laws that allow for the hunting of grey seals. Pannozzo has compiled evidence that suggests that the cod population decrease was probably far less dependent on the grey seals and that the hunting of grey seals is a scapegoat for the issues associated with overfishing leading to an unstable ecosystem. Pannozzo is concerned with only publishing the facts that decriminalize the grey seals. As a scientific personality, she will argue her point through facts. The data she presents argues for an ecofeminist perspective on the matter by taking into consideration the intrinsic value of the grey seals – their value in themselves as well as to the environment and ecosystem – and considers them just as valuable as the cod, which have a huge instrumental value for humans as determined by those in power.

Plenty of evidence suggests that the seals are not the reason that the cod are under threat of extirpation. This book discusses the diets of the seals, the worms that can make cod less desirable, the diets of larger predators, such as sharks that eat more cod than the seals, and the inhumanity in laws regarding how the seals must be killed. The government, however, is far more interested in appeasing the fishermen, who have often had to find new employment, as well as sustaining the economy. The export of seal products is – for the most part – frowned upon on the world stage for example, as discussed by Pannozzo, in Europe and Russia the markets are closed for import or export of seals and their by-products, however, Canada was able to find a market in China.

The non-recovery of the cod is not as dependent on seal populations as the government tries to convince the public. There are many factors that go into the missing fish such as harsh environments for young fish including a cannibalistic nature where up to 44% of the juvenile population is consumed by its own species (Pannozzo, 54), diseases, unreported catches that must be discarded and by-catching from other fishing industries. Seals can be easily blamed because, visually, they are a large mammal that has invaded human territory and fishing grounds. From a feminist perspective, the seals are seen as a weed species by being on the fishing grounds. Pannozzo also points out that the only data of population that we have for seals and cod is recent. We know there was an abundance of cod but each year the baseline shifts so we don’t know what the natural population of cod is. The same concept is applied to the seals. Until recently, there are no records of seal populations with which to compare the current population to find out whether this is natural or not.

The Canadian culture of the east coast revolves around fishing and while the industry has largely switched over to crustaceans, fishing is a part of the culture and way of life. Protecting the interests of the fishermen helps the government to maintain: Canada’s image as an environmental leader, the tradition and culture of the east coast and the economic dependency on marine life. The government uses their power to decide which aspects of our country are valuable. Some species, like cod, have an instrumental value while others are seen as less valuable and in our space, like the seals. The power to decide, in this case, resides in the government and once they decided that seals had less instrumental value to humans they became a “weed species” which also indicates a very anthropocentric worldview by ‘othering’ non-humans. The video “Tipping point” stressed that Canada is known for the natural landscape and natural resources. Canada is broken down into sections based on the predominant resources and the landscape. Maintaining this image is important in the Maritimes not only for morale but also for the economy of the east. Fishing was a staple and still is but the decline in cod populations shows weakness in the economy and in our natural resources. On the world stage, seal hunting is mostly frowned upon in public opinion due to the videos and animal rights movements that have come out about seal hunting and the cruelty issues behind it. Pannozzo points out the laws surrounding timing of death and the steps needed to kill a seal such as having to check if they are dead before skinning them and the appropriate tools to make the first contact with the seal. We also watched a video in class entitled “Pelts” which talked about and had images of seal hunting in the northern Atlantic parts of Canada. Groups like PETA – people for the ethical treatment of animals – make seal hunting taboo by spreading gruesome, emotion-provoking images of the seal hunt. While commercial seal hunting may not be the answer to the missing fish, this also puts new laws in act for indigenous ways of life that may change how and when they hunt. This is also a form on environmental racism by protecting the new cultural sanctions (those of domination of nature) over the previous cultural sanctions that involve respect and working with nature, which is still a model that indigenous people live off of. In an attempt to bring cod populations back to preserve the cultural and economic integrity of Atlantic Canada, the government brought a whole new issue upon themselves in seal hunting. Despite the increase in seal population, cod populations may not be affected by seal culling as much as previously thought or advertised.

The author is coming from an ecofeminist perspective because she is taking into account more than just the economic value or the value to humans that these non-human others have. She also touches on the concept of flourishing or the continued well-being of individuals, species, communities and ecosystems. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book. Seals, as a top predator, have a huge impact on their environment. Before reading this book I didn’t consider their affect on the lower trophic levels: that when seals dive, the air they push out to collapse their lungs to help adjust to the pressure also fuels phytoplankton growth through the nitrogen expelled into the water and while diving they bring nutrients back to the surface, mixing the nutrients in the water and fueling growth. (Pannozzo, 103) Using seals in products may even be a detriment to humans. Seals, being a top predator and one of the highest trophic levels means seals have a bioaccumulation of toxins like PCB’s, pesticides and PBDE’s. The use of seal products such as those used to create Omega-3 pills, may not be safe for human consumption. (Pannozzo, 94) Pannozzo also presents the book through an ethic of care and touches on how sustainable development could have prevented the collapse of the cod industry. Some of her arguments also include the precautionary principle through suggestions such as that until we know how seal breeding is affected by the changes in the ice, there should be no seal hunting and similar ideas for cod in retrospect as well. The ethic of care is very evident when she writes that some evidence is hard to get because it may put seals into harmful environments or cause them pain for example trying to recreate the “corkscrew” cuts on dead seals and the timing involved in the three steps that need to be taken to kill a seal and confirm that the death is timely and as humane as possible. Pannozzo also hits a few of Deanna Curtin’s generalizations about women’s knowledge. The theories presented are relational because they are about relationships between people, the earth, and non-human others. The theories are collaborative with other scientists as well as reflecting on complex ecosystems. The theories consider context and situation as Pannozzo takes into consideration the shifting baseline and what the natural equilibriums are and the absence of data for populations before a certain time period and then takes into consideration the precautionary principle again in that until we have more data about population equilibriums we shouldn’t initiate culls until we know what to expect and how this will affect the populations. The author is focused on bioregionalism and protecting her home place where she “lives with her husband, daughter, dog and three cats”. (Panozzo, back cover) She talks about seals being a weed species without using those words. The whole book stems from the speciesism of cod being valued more than the seals. Seals are seen as a second best in an attempt to try to revive the cod that were exploited for their products of their reproduction through fishing.

Pannozzo presents the evidence that pushes her case forward just as the government emphasized the findings and did little research in areas that they knew would dispute seal hunting. “In the case of the cod non-recovery, a great deal of time, effort and money have gone into studying the impact of the grey seals and not the other possible explanations for the non-recovery.” (Pannozzo, 70) While I appreciate the scientific integrity of Pannozzo’s writing, it’s evident that she is a scientist because this book almost reads like a lab report. I found that the overuse of statistics bogged down the writing especially at the beginning of the book.

“The collapse of the cod stocks is a story of how rapacious fishing interests, ruinous factory-fishing technology, government mismanagement and wonky science all combined to catastrophic effect. As we have seen, the fishing industry, the federal government and some scientists are blaming seals for the cod population’s failure to bounce back. While blaming the seals may be politically convenient, it glosses over many unwelcome, little-known facts – facts that also point to a lack of enlightened political leadership.” (Pannozzo, 64)

This quote is a corner stone of the book and can be used as an example for many natural issues. Nature is complex and the continued use of resources is often underestimated by the impacts that may be caused by this. In Lesli Bisgould’s TED talk, she speaks about how it’s necessary for an animal to suffer whenever we says so which is a political loophole for this situation. As soon as there is a human purpose for an animal’s suffering the suffering is necessary and has a purpose. (Bisgould, “It’s Time to Reevaluate our Relationship with Animals”) This is an institution that assures us that seal hunting is the best way to combat this situation. “The long-standing drive to manage and control nature needs to be replaced with a commitment to live within the limits of the ecosystems of which we are a part of.” (Pannozzo, 134)

Overall this book was enlightening. Reading the epilogue, it’s not surprising that she had trouble obtaining the information. The fishing industry of Eastern Canada is a major part of our culture and for the collapse of such an industry its also not surprising that the government tried to find blame in other places. Ecosystems are complex and dynamic and while we can try to model them, the synergistic aspect of them makes predicting outcomes difficult. This case study is even more complex because it involves emotions, power dynamics, complex environmental ecosystems and cultural integrity. The ecofeminist perspective critiques the actions of those in power. An open mind to the environment may have produced a different outcome for this case study. Pannozzo presents many arguments for the need of an ecofeminist perspective of the situation.

Works Cited

Bisgould, Lesli. “It’s Time to Reevaluate our Relationship with Animals.” TEDxUofT, University of Toronto: Toronto, Canada. 6 May 2014. Conference presentation.

Pannozzo, Linda. Devil In The Deep Blue Sea. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2013. Print.

Pelts. Dir. Nigel Markham. National Film Board. 1989. Online.

“Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands”. The Nature Of Things. CBC. 7 March 2013.

Pelts. Dir. Nigel Markham. National Film Board. 1989. Online.


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