The commercial Canadian seal hunt is the most widely publicised of the commercial hunts. As with the Namibian slaughter, the annual bloodbath is surrounded in controversy that sees scientists, conservationists and welfare organizations pitted against an irresponsible government that is not only hell bent on spewing misinformation and propaganda, but one that likes to obscure the truth by playing the “traditional and cultural” card to promote their own political agenda.
The hunt began to gain notoriety in the 1960’s, with television stations airing documentaries on the clubbing. This gained momentum when celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot got involved in the 1970’s and more recently by visits from Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills to the floes.
Species targeted by the Canadian seal hunt
There are three species of seal that are targeted. The majority of these are Harp seals under 3 months of age, while Hooded seals and Grey seals make up the balance. The “hunt” lasts from mid November until mid May, peaks in the months of March and April and is regulated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO.) This body is responsible for the issuing of quotas and permits, the implementation of regulations, monitoring the hunt and promoting the slaughter through various channels.
There have been several changes to the hunt over the years. The most significant of these deals with the hunting of “whitecoats” or Harp seals that are under 3 weeks old as well as “bluebacks” or juvenile hooded seals. In 1972, the US government implemented the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because these animals are still dependent on their mothers and are nursing from the teat, the MMPA outlaws the hunting and import of both. The EEC banned the import of “whitecoats” in 1983 while Canada banned the commercial hunting of “whitecoats” and “bluebacks” in December of 1987.
Despite this ban, illegal hunting continues. In 1996, Canadian authorities seized 22 800 “blueback” pelts that had been slaughtered during the commercial hunt. The hunting of “whitecoats” is still permitted in Canada for personal use and is stipulated as such under section 27 of the Marine Mammals Regulations.
While we acknowledge that the hunting of “whitecoats” has been outlawed under the commercial hunt, we refute claims made by both the Canadian government and the Canadian Sealers Association (a pro hunt lobby group set up to promote the hunt through misinformation) that baby seals are not being slaughtered.
Harp seals, which can live for 30-35 years and only reach sexual maturity between 4-6 years, are targeted by the sealers when they are between 3 weeks and 3 months of age. Many of these have not yet taken to the water or eaten their first solid meal. It should be quite evident to any thinking person that these animals are indeed still babies.
In the video below, Sheryl Fink, Director of the Seal Program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) dispels further propaganda that proponents of the Canadian hunt like to bandy about.
According to the Marine Mammal Regulations, the act which governs the “humaneness” of the hunt, seals must be slaughtered using only high-powered rifles, 20 gauge shotguns, clubs or hakapiks. In order to move away from the negative connotations associated with seal clubbing, there has been a gradual shift from using hakapiks to the use of firearms.
Today, 90% of seals killed in the Canadian hunt are shot at from boats. This may seem to be the way to go in order to eliminate cruelty and make the hunt more “humane.” However, independent observers have noted that the movement of a rocking boat does not always guarantee an accurate shot and some estimates have gone so far as to say that for every successful shot, one wounded and injured animal manages to escape beneath the ice.
While the majority of seals are hunted with firearms, 10% are still slaughtered by means of bludgeoning them with a hakapik. This rudimentary device of Norwegian design consists of a heavy wooden club fitted with a hammer head (for crushing the seals skulls) and a hook (for dragging the seals corpses across the ice.) The use of a hakapik is preferred in certain circles as it causes less damage to the pelt and is cheaper than using bullets.
A study conducted by five international veterinarians in 2001 concluded that the Canadian commercial seal hunt results in considerable and unacceptable suffering, despite the regulations set out in the Marine Mammals Regulations.
The veterinarians examined 76 seal carcasses and found that in 17% of the cases, there were no detectable lesions of the skull, leading them to conclude the clubbing likely did not result in loss of consciousness. In 25% of the remaining cases, the carcasses had minimal to moderate skull fractures, indicative of a “decreased level of consciousness”, but probably not unconsciousness. The remaining 58% of the carcasses examined showed extensive skull fractures.
This veterinary study included examination of video footage of 179 seals hunted in 1998, 1999, and 2000. In these videos, 96 seals were shot, 56 were shot and then clubbed or gaffed, 19 were clubbed or gaffed, and 8 were killed by unknown means. In 79% of these cases, sealers did not check the corneal reflex to ensure that the seals were dead prior to hooking or skinning them. In only 6% of these cases, seals were bled immediately, where struck.
The Canadian senate recently approved an experimental cull of 70 000 Grey Seals. The move is being done in the hope that this slaughter will allow for the recovery of Cod stocks. Critics, such as marine biologist Prof. Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University have lambasted this slaughter as “unscientific and wrong” Further scientific evidence has shown Grey Seals do not affect Cod recovery in the Baltic Sea. In ignoring science, it is quite evident the DFO is under pressure from the fishing industry and is lobbying for political favour.
Aside from the cruelty aspect, the commercial Canadian hunt does not make economic sense. Since the EU ban came into effect in 2009, the price of a seal pelt has plummeted from C$120 to less than C$15. While the landed value of pelts brings in C$1 million, lack of demand has seen an unwilling tax payer fork out over C$7 million in subsidies. An additional C$3.6 million has been made available to Carino (a fur processing company) to continue to store over 400 000 seal pelts that are rotting in warehouses around the world. To add insult to injury and despite massive opposition, the Canadian senate has decided to challenge the EU ban; a move expected to cost the tax payer a further C$ 10 million in legal fees.
In a desperate attempt to find further markets, former DFO minister Gail Shea turned to China saying “The Chinese will eat anything.” Her remarks sparked outrage from Chinese activists who accused the Canadian Government of “racist bias and cultural imperialism.” In an open letter to the Canadian Senate, 50 Chinese environmental and animal welfare groups have asked that the exportation of seal products from Canada to China be stopped immediately. The letter made it perfectly clear that activists don’t want Canada’s ill-begotten seal products and found the practice of killing seals for fur and meat barbaric.
The most serious conservation threat to harp seals is global warming. Harp seals require a stable ice platform in late February and early March to give birth and nurse their pups. If suitable ice cannot be found, the mothers are forced to give birth in the water where the pups will die. If ice is found, but does not remain solid through the 2 week nursing period, pups unable to receive the milk they need to build up the thick blubber required for survival. Thin ice may break up in wind or waves before the pups are fully fed and able to swim, or pups may be crushed in the ice or succumb to exhaustion as they struggle to find solid ice.
A lack of suitable ice means increased deaths of young harp seal pups. Below-average ice conditions during their birthing and nursing period have become more prevalent in recent years and, in some years, the toll on newborn seal pups is significant. For example, in 2002, DFO scientists estimated that 75% of the pups born in the Gulf of St. Lawrence died due to poor ice, and that in 2007 mortality in the Southern Gulf was “Extremely high” and “possibly approaching 100%. According to Environment Canada data, ice conditions have been below-average in 10 of the past 12 years and the DFO acknowledges increased pup mortality in 6 of these years.
One thing governments can do immediately to counteract the threats posed by global warming and changing ice conditions is to reduce other, non-climate related threats, such as over hunting. A responsible government, incorporating a precautionary approach, would take steps to reduce the threats to the harp seal population posed by the environmental uncertainty arising from global warming.
Further studies pointing to a decline in seal pups has renewed calls to end the controversial hunt. Even veteran seal hunter Jack Troake, who’s ventured out on the ice since 1952, has told the media he has witnessed changes to ice conditions and seal populations.
“It’s not that I don’t give a rat’s ass (about ice levels),” Troake said. “There is something drastically wrong with the harp seals, I can tell you that”
Instead of the ethical and responsible approach, Canada continues to set total allowable catches (TAC’s) at levels their own scientists say will not only cause the population to decline, but which will also require drastic reductions in TACs in the near future.
YOU can contact the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) by clicking HERE. Tell them how you feel.