Cull the Seals, Save the Whales!

Three Whales Jumping: circa. 1968, Murray Newman fonds, File 619-A-4, folder 2, Add. MSS. 1287, City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver.

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Earlier this summer, a group of fishermen, First Nations communities, and members of the fur industry called on the federal government to allow for a cull on seals and sea lions along the British Columbia coast.[1] The group, known as the Pacific Balance Pinnipeds Society (PBPS), argued that the quickest way to reverse declining Chinook salmon populations was to kill predatory seals and sea lions. They argued further that seals and sea lions posed a major threat, not only to migrating salmon, but also to “the endangered killer whales that feed on them.” PBPS member Ken Pearce stressed that by reducing the overall seal and sea lion population by roughly 50%, hundreds of metric tons of salmon could be made available for human harvesting, left to spawn, or “set aside for killer whales.”[2]

Dead Sea Lion Photo: Dead Sea Lion, Skeena River. 1920. B.C. Archives Visual Records Collection, Archives Code HP031226, Acc. No. 193501-001, Reference Code B-02310. B.C. Archives, Victoria,

The culling of seals and sea lions to protect salmon stocks is nothing new in British Columbia. What is new, however, is the idea of killing one marine mammal species for the benefit of another. According to PBPS, fewer seals and sea lions would mean that southern resident killer whales (as well as humans) would have less competition for declining Chinook salmon stocks. While this call to kill the seals to save the whales may simply be a way for PBPS to garner greater public support for a seal and sea lion cull, this declaration emphasizes the differing “regimes of value” that killer whales possess in comparison to seals and sea lions.[3] Indeed, the southern resident killer whales have become emblematic of B.C.’s coasts in a way that seals and sea lions have not. For the PBPS, both seals and sea lions are worth sacrificing for the benefit of humans and killer whales.


This has not always been the case in British Columbia. Indeed, until recently, B.C. fishermen vilified seals, sea lions, and killer whales for their perceived impact on salmon stocks and their real impact on fishing equipment. By the early twentieth century, B.C. fishermen directed much of their frustrations toward seals and sea lions. Despite the presence of commercial seal and sea lion fisheries in the Pacific, fishermen believed that there were still too many animals in Canadian waters and that they were contributing to declining catches in many fisheries. In British Columbia, fishermen in the Fraser River viewed seals and sea lions as serious threats to their industry.

Conflict between fishermen and pinnipeds reached its boiling point in the early twentieth century. Prompted by complaints that sea lions were damaging the fisheries, in 1913 the B.C. government examined the impact that sea lions posed to the fishing industry. The investigation concluded that there were more than 11,000 sea lions along the coast. Drs. C.F. and W.A. Newcombe concluded that since sea lions subsisted primarily on fish such as salmon, halibut, and herring, a “systematic effort should be made to materially reduce their numbers.” According to the Newcombes, the most effective killing method would be to let armed hunters operate at the rookeries during the breeding season, shooting pups “when the mothers are in the water after food.”[4]

The cull began later that year and lasted until 1968. Sponsored by the government, hunters killed more than 55,000 sea lions during that period.[5] The most intense killing period occurred between 1923 and 1939, when hunters killed more than 20,000 animals along the province’s central coast, largely with machine guns.[6] A 1941 article from Western Fisheries reported that “the white water [was] stained a vivid red” after machine gunners sent “a hail of lead into the ranks of the fish raiders of the Pacific [the Steller’s sea lions].” The article noted that these measures were necessary as part of a broader conservation effort to “save the seafood wealth of the nation.”[7] By the late 1960s, entire rookeries had been eradicated at places such as Virgin, Pearl, and Watch Rocks.[8]

Dead Hair Seal Photo: Dead Hair Seal. Date Unknown. B.C. Archives Visual Records Collection, Archives Code HP060908, Acc. No. 193501-001, Reference Code D-01278. B.C. Archives, Victoria,

Seals did not fare much better. Described as a “great menace… to the salmon fishery of the Fraser River,” in 1914 the government instituted a bounty program for every sealskin returned to fishery officials.[9] While the department paid out 3,771 bounties between 1914 and 1917, officials did not feel these measures went far enough.[10] They instead opted for explosives to destroy “the enemy.” After planting mines at a favourite seal resting place, fisheries engineer J. McHugh reported,

At the proper moment the mines were fired, and the explosion was quite successfully accomplished. Upon arriving on the ground it was observed that the explosion had been more destructive than I had intended. Evidently many of the seals were lying immediately over some of the mines as their bodies were blown to atoms, not a piece larger than two inches square being found.[11]

Killer whales were not spared from fishermen’s frustrations during this period. Jason Colby notes that during the first half of the twentieth century, orcas possessed a reputation as bloodthirsty killers. In the early twentieth century, it became “common practice for fishermen to shoot killer whales, and many of those captured in later years bore the scars of bullet wounds.”[12] Indeed, “whalers, scientists, and fishermen around the world were killing hundreds, perhaps thousands per year” by the 1950s.[13] In postwar British Columbia, complaints against killer whales came largely from sports fishermen, whose growing tourism industry competed with the animals for Chinook salmon. Pressed by fishermen to address the killer whale problem, in 1961 Canadian fisheries officials mounted a machine gun on Seymour Narrows, just north of Campbell River, to kill killer whales. The gun was never used, but its placement reveals the antipathy government officials and fishermen felt toward killer whales.[14]


Prime Minister, I’d like you to meet Skana, 1971, in Murray A. Newman, Life in a Fishbowl (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1994).

Human attitudes toward killer whales in British Columbia changed dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s. In his recent book, Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator, Colby argues that killer whale captures in the Salish Sea and their subsequent display in Seattle and Vancouver transformed the animal from “the ominous ‘killer’” to the “lovable ‘orca.’”[15] This evolution occurred at the same time that perceptions about cetaceans as a whole changed in North America. Aquarium exhibits, ground-breaking scientific discoveries, new countercultural philosophies, and fears surrounding human-driven extinctions transformed perceptions of cetaceans for Canadians and Americans alike. The introduction of whale watching tours along B.C.’s coasts further introduced whales to human populations who did not have a chance to view these animals before. Whale watching continues to be a massive tourist draw today, attracting roughly half a million visitors in 2016.[16]

But such a transformation did not happen for seals and sea lions. Although the Canadian government ended its war of extermination against seals and sea lions by the mid-1970s, there was no corresponding cultural evolution in favour of pinnipeds, as there had been for killer whales. The animals became focal points for environmental and animal-rights groups concerned with sealing in places such as Newfoundland and Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, but these sentiments did not dislodge previous attitudes toward seals and sea lions among B.C. fishermen. Indeed, long-standing perceptions of these animals as “pests” and detriments to the salmon fisheries have remained firmly entrenched. The fact that both seal and sea lion populations in B.C. have rebounded since the 1970s has only cemented these attitudes further.[17] The PBPS call for a cull points to the fact that many B.C. fishermen believe that the animals are having a negative impact on their livelihoods and need to be destroyed.


Arjun Appadurai’s “regimes of value” is a useful concept for understanding PBPS’ calls to kill the seals and sea lions in order to help save the southern resident killer whales. In a regime of value, the value of a certain “thing” is understood as being “constructed through cultural and economic processes.” [18] As such, value is not permanently fixed but is tied to changing cultural and economic circumstances that “can vary from situation to situation and from commodity to commodity.”[19]

This can clearly be seen when looking at the different degrees of economic and cultural significance attached to the southern resident killer whales and to seals and sea lions. Thanks to the developments of the 1960s and 1970s, British Columbians now view the southern residents as important cultural and environmental symbols of the Pacific Northwest. The whales’ previous captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium and Victoria’s Sealand of the Pacific and the continued popularity of whale watching tours has helped them remain important tourist attractions and economic drivers for cities such as Vancouver and Victoria. Their status as an endangered population and the uncertainty surrounding the group’s future has further increased human interest and concern. Taken together, these factors have moved southern residents into a new regime of value in which they hold elevated cultural and economic significance.

Lone Whale Jumping: circa. 1968, Murray Newman fonds, File 619-A-4, folder 3, Add. MSS. 1287, City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver.

Seals and sea lions inhabit a very different regime of value. In British Columbia, their cultural and economic value remains similar to what it was in the early twentieth century. While calls to protect seals and sea lions have grown considerably over the past century, with many environmental and animal-rights groups fighting to secure greater protection for these animals, neither pinniped holds significant cultural or economic value in the province, especially in comparison to the southern resident killer whales. Both seals and sea lions have been exhibited at spaces such as the Vancouver Aquarium for decades, yet they do not have the same hold on the public’s collective imagination as killer whales. For many fishermen, the tens of thousands of seals and sea lions along B.C.’s coasts still represent a major source of competition for salmon and are seen as a risk to the industry’s economic survival.

Understanding the divergent historical relationships between humans and killer whales on the one hand, and humans and seals and sea lions on the other helps us to understand the coherence behind PBPS’ calls. Today, the endangered southern resident killer whales are cultural symbols of the Pacific Northwest, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to B.C. every year. Seals and sea lions do not. For many fishermen, these animals are still seen as pests that are destroying their economic livelihoods. Further, the fewer than eighty members of the southern resident population pose much less of a threat to declining Chinook populations, and fishermen’s associated income, than the tens of thousands of seals and sea lions along B.C.’s coasts. Because these animals hold such different cultural and economic significance, there is no inconsistency for groups such as the PBPS to call for the destruction of seals and sea lions, but not the southern residents, in order to protect Chinook salmon stocks.


[1] PBPS prefers to use the term “harvest” rather than cull. According to co-founder and Haida Gwaii elder Roy Jones Jr., PBPS intends to sell seal and sea lion skins and meat.

[2] Greg Rasmusson, “B.C. group wants to kill the seals to save the whales,” CBC, September 12, 2018.

[3] Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 15.

[4] C.F. Newcombe and W.A. Newcombe, Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries for the year ending December 31st 1913 (Victoria: Province of British Columbia, 1914), 131.

[5] Steller Sea Lion: Stock Status Report (Ottawa: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2003), 1.

[6] Peter F. Olesiuk, Recent Trends in Abundance of Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in British Columbia (Ottawa: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2018), 13.

[7] “Machine-Gunners Raid Breeding Rookeries,” Western Fisheries, January 1941.

[8] Olesiuk, Recent Trends, 9.

[9] Fiftieth Annual Report of the Fisheries Branch (Ottawa: Department of the Naval Service, 1917), 235.

[10] A specific bounty program on harbour seals began in 1914. Bounty claims fluctuated widely in the period between 1914 and 1947, with a peak of 6308 claims in 1930-31 and a low of 400 in 1933-34. See H.D. Fisher, The Status of the Harbour Seal in British Columbia, with Particular Reference to the Skeena River, Bulletin No. 93 (Ottawa: Fisheries Research Board of Canada, 1952), 49.

[11] Letter from J. McHugh to F.H. Cunningham, 1918, in Fiftieth Annual Report of the Fisheries Branch (Ottawa: Department of the Naval Service, 1917), 236-237.

[12] Jason Colby, Orca: How We Came To Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 34.

[13] Ibid., 1.

[14] Ibid., 36; Jason Colby, “The Whale and the Region: Orca Capture and Environmentalism in the New Pacific Northwest,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 24, no. 2 (2013): 430.

[15] Colby, Orca, 2.

[16] Jayson Maclean, “B.C.’s Whale Watching Industry Seeing ‘Big, Big’ Boom,” Cantech Letter, August 22, 2016,

[17] Steller Sea Lion: Stock Status Report, 5.

[18] Emilie Crossley and David Picard, “Regimes of Value in Tourism,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 12, no. 3 (2014): 201.

[19] Appadurai, 15.

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M. Blake Butler

I am an Ottawa-based historian. Much of my research examines Canadian and environmental histories, with an emphasis on winter-based topics. My doctoral dissertation examined the history of snow in Vancouver between the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century. I am also currently employed as a historical researcher at Know History. I can be reached at


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