The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Male grey seal on Sable Island beach titled "The Old Man and the Sea," courtesy of Damian Lidgard

In the early 1990s the collapse of the Atlantic groundfish stocks signaled the destruction of life in the seas and unraveled the very fabric of rural life throughout Atlantic Canada. Twenty years later, even after fishing moratoriums and limited directed fishing, the cod have not recovered, and some stocks are on the verge of biological extinction. The fishing industry, politicians and some government scientists blame the growing population of grey seals—a species that had up until the 1970s been severely depleted—and argue that a large scale cull of the population is needed to save the cod: in 2011 the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council recommended one and the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans followed suit in 2012.

In The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Linda Pannozzo finds that the truth is much more complex and that the seals are scapegoats for the federal government’s mismanagement of the cod stocks, deflecting attention away from the effects of global warming and continued use of destructive fishing methods. The collapse of the cod fishery, its failure to recover and the recommendations for large-scale seal culls are stark reminders of how fisheries, science and public policy are increasingly estranged from each other.

Book Reviews: 

Farley Mowat (Author of a gazillion books including Sea of Slaughter): “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is one of the most significant books to appear in modern times. With astonishing and terrifying clarity and passion it tolls a fearful tocsin. Unless we vastly improve upon our treatment of the oceans, all animate creation may pay a fatal price for our abuse, and the devil will have added a new and frightful realm to hell.”

Silver Donald Cameron (Author, journalist, and one of my mentors): “Linda Pannozzo, a meticulous researcher and a gifted writer, has written a powerful study of the scapegoating of the grey seal for the failure of cod to recover. Her book mercilessly documents the ignorance and arrogance that underpin our futile attempts to “manage” the ocean environment. Ultimately, her work shows that healing the seas will require profound change not in other species, but in our own.”

Jeffrey Hutchings (Department of Biology, Dalhousie University): “Very clearly presented, well written, and fair.”

Daniel Pauly (Fisheries Scientist, University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre): “Seals eat fish and, hence, if you kill all the seals, you should get more fish. This is the logic of the “culling programs” in Newfoundland and Labrador, but also that of the Japanese whaling industry, with the whale replacing the seals. Except that it ain’t so, as Linda Pannozzo shows in ‘The Devil in a Deep Blue Sea’, which explains, among other things that marine mammals can often increase the population of fish we like, by feeding on their predators and competitors, which are often fish we don’t like. This is not really complicated, but you need to think before you go bashing seals. This is what this excellent book is about.”

Judges for the Rachel Carson Book Award (Honourable Mention) (The U.S Society of Environmental Journalists):  “Far more than a monograph about the plight of a single wildlife species, ”The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: An Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal” packs a lot of punch into 192 pages. Pannozzo takes readers deep inside the world of seal hunting while making a case for how government officials have seemingly used the seal as a scapegoat for the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery when they should have, instead, been looking at the government’s own mismanagement of cod stocks. By blaming seals and proposing large-scale culls, officials have deflected attention away from the more difficult and complex issues of climate change and destructive fishing methods, she argues. The author goes well beyond the obvious with independent research, vivid scene-setting and eloquent writing while questioning the motives of government officials. This tale of a species attempting to make a comeback in the face of adversity is an outstanding examination of the environmental consequences of bureaucratic finger-pointing.”

Dean Bavington (Author of Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse): Linda Pannozzo brilliantly illustrates how grey seals have been politically, ethically, emotionally, and physically sacrificed to divert attention from the scientifically managed annihilation of Canada’s cod fisheries and their failure to recover. As cod face immanent biological extinction over twenty years on from a fishing moratorium designed by DFO to save them we learn that toxins from the St. Lawrence river are contaminating the habitat needed for healthy cod; that scientific diet studies on how much cod seals eat produce extremely variable results depending on the techniques used; that ocean acidification is influencing cod’s food sources; and that even complex ecosystem models of sea creatures fail to capture experiences with actual living beings and their endangered milieus.

The research behind this story of sacrifice is extremely thorough, balanced and up to date, but most important to me, Pannozzo provides the context behind the scapegoating of grey seals.  Revealing are the many stalls, roadblocks and gag orders she encounters as prolific public relations staff attempt to manage the questions she is allowed to ask and the answers federal scientists are allowed to give in Stephen Harper’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  We are shown the reality and rapidity of changes brought on by Omnibus Bill C-38 to the functioning of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  After much time and Access to Information (ATIP) requests the Kafkaesque episode comes to an end with a revealing email trail through eighteen communications employees in the federal DFO spread over three provincial offices. 

But this book is worth reading for much more than the epilogue, the many complex issues Pannozzo uncovers as factors influencing the lack of cod recovery should be mandatory reading for all of us interested in fish, seals and other sea life.  What The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea ultimately illustrates is the urgency of the need to change our relationships with fish, seals and all other marine life.  Understanding the scapegoating of grey seals for the commercial cod fisheries collapse and its failure to recover is the necessary first step before beginning to reimagine and reestablish appropriate relationships between fish and people on Canada’s east coast.  If a new relationship is established we will have reached a point where our culture can understand the true sacrifice and loss associated with the commercial extinction of the cod fishery and the fisheries failure to be encouraged to recover.

Jae S. Choi (Research Scientist, Fisheries & Oceans Canada): Linda Pannozzo succeeds in presenting a well researched and satisfyingly balanced treatment of the controversial relationships that exist between cod, seals and humans. It is presented in a well written and clear manner, accessible to both a lay and scientific audience. In the selection of ideas presented in this frank narrative, she demonstrates an incisive understanding of the core issues at hand that is sometimes viscerally uncomfortable. Most importantly, she highlights the very important role that our values play in altering our perception of these relationships and our need to move beyond such biases. In so doing, she calls us to action, to come to terms with the much more important and difficult task at hand of renegotiating and re-envisioning our relationship with our world and our selves. I hope this book is read by many, especially our youth, to whom we pass the torch as stewards of a fragile yet hopeful future. 

Sean Brillant (Manager, Marine Programs, Canadian Wildlife Federation): The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea documents circumstances leading to two current, related debates in fisheries management for Atlantic Canada: that grey seals are the reason cod have failed to recover since the moratorium on that fishery; and the proposal that a cull of this population of seals will benefit cod populations. Linda Pannozzo has done a great deal of work to present the social, scientific, and managerial conditions that have led to this debate. While there is a tone of opposition to the cull throughout the book, this is not  surprising as the author clearly presents her perspective in the forward.

This book gives good insights into fisheries science, fisheries management and principles of ecological interactions, as well as the effect of politics and human perception on these issues. Occasionally the book delves into details of seemingly distant topics (e.g. ITQs, MSY, ecological interactions, history of fisheries management) the purpose of which sometimes seems unclear, however this is partially due to the inter-relatedness of these topics with the subject of this book. 

This book is easy to read and interesting. It concludes powerfully; both her last chapter and the epilogue. Many readers will benefit by seeing what lies beyond the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is fisheries science and management. Because all wildlife are a public resource managed by our government for the benefit of all (current and future) Canadians, we should all be more aware of debates and decisions that affect our natural heritage. Reading this book will help to increase that awareness.

Scott Wallace (Senior Research Scientist, David Suzuki Foundation): The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea has achieved more than a thorough scientific investigation of scapegoating marine mammals in Canadian fisheries. Linda Pannozzo has done an amazing job of distilling the complexities of marine ecosystems to demonstrate the challenge of making any cause and effect claims about marine food webs….the devil is in the details. Understanding these complexities requires a fundamental reshaping of our perceptions around how marine ecosystem form and how humans impact them. The book is impeccably researched and makes for an interesting read.

Katie Schleit (Ecology Action Centre, Halifax): Spurred by the government’s decision to change the Wilderness Areas Protection Act to allow for commercial sealing on Hay Island, a protected area off the southeast coast of Cape Breton, author and researcher Linda Pannozzo sought to clarify the relationship between the grey seal and cod. While presenting at the public hearings needed to change the law, she learned from Dalhousie University scientists that there was no scientific evidence that grey seals were preventing the recovery of the cod population. So why the cull?

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, published in October 2013, is an extremely thorough and well-researched exploration of that question. Pannozzo talks with a variety of people involved in the decision and in cod, seal, and marine food web research to pinpoint an answer. Readers are taken down many fascinating paths into seal tracking research, the surprising difficulty of studying seal diet, historical accounts of seal and cod populations, controversies in marine food web modeling, legal requirements of seal hunts, predicted effects of climate change on seal whelping grounds, and more, to piece together the relationship between grey seals and cod.


In the Media:


The following is an excerpt from the “Author’s Note”

Over the years as a freelance journalist and researcher I’ve been drawn to “resource-based” controversies; when I look back at a number of them, I see that they all have a number of things in common. For one, they are usually highly polarized. Think of the charged protests over the cutting of old growth forests or closer to home, the clashes over the harp seal hunt — one story that has gripped and divided the east coast for five decades. In these and countless other stories around the globe, the issues tend to get distilled in the mainstream media as a battle between two opposing forces: between the environmentalist and the logger, or in this case the animal welfare activist and the sealer. In a way, it’s this conflict that has defined these stories, usually characterized by easily digestible sound-bites and stereotypes on all sides — with usually only two presented.

But the truth is, the issues don’t break down over neatly defined lines like these. In all of these controversies the simple dichotomies don’t even begin to address the complexity of the issues at hand. The pressures facing people who depend on a steady supply of “resources” for their livelihood are real, and sometimes tragically so. It is this broader analysis of the economic system in which the fishery takes place — one that demands limitless growth on a finite planet and one that often pits big business and profits against small communities — that is noticeably absent from the discussion. This is where I ultimately had to go: to explore the real battle that most of the time is being waged off our radar screens.

When I looked back in the CBC radio archives, I found an interview given in 1977 by Richard Cashin, the head of the Newfoundland Fishermen, Food, and Allied Workers Union at the time, who was passionately representing the sealers during the protests against the harp seal hunt and trying to sway public opinion in their favour. He said: “The seal to us, to me anyway, is a symbol. If today you take the seal away from me, tomorrow you’ll take the cod, the next day the lobster, the next day my right to live in a small village…It’s a fight for survival.” His words proved uncannily prescient and in many ways they are as true today as they were back then. The seal really is a symbol and the issues are about survival: the seal is a symbol of how our relationship with nature has gone completely askew, and the story shows how this estrangement — from the natural world and each other — not only threatens the viability of small coastal communities but our survival on this planet. That’s what this book is really about, and the story about the grey seals and the cod illustrates it.

Related published articles

Pannozzo, L. 2010. “How to Kill 220,000 Seals on Sable Island: The DFO Plan.” The Coast. May 27.

Pannozzo, L. and B. Wark. 2010. “Sable Island’s Cod Killer?” The Coast. July 1.

Pannozzo, L. 2012. “Sealfall, Licence to Cull.” The Coast. November 15.