Tradition or disaster?

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The sudden proliferation of gruesome images of adorable seal pups, the fierce debates between the government and animal rights groups, and the manipulative rhetoric used on both sides are some of the events that can be expected around the time of Canada’s annual commercial seal hunt.

This year, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea announced a 50,000 increase in the total number of seals that can be legally hunted – a decision that has incited visceral reactions from animal rights groups, celebrities, politicians and the European Union, who recently banned Canadian seal products from the European market. In the words of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals representative Danielle Katz, “the Canadian seal slaughter is truly Canada’s shame.”

A brief history

The Canadian commercial seal hunt – the largest slaughter of marine wildlife in the world – takes place each year in late March and early April on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in northeast Newfoundland, where hundreds of thousands of seals are killed in a matter of days.

The commercial seal hunt, which exists for the purpose of collecting seal fur, should not be confused with the Inuit subsistence hunt – an integral part of Inuit culture and tradition in Nunavut and Northern Canada.

“The Inuit subsistence hunt is for a living and total utilization of the animal,” says Bridget Curran, a spokesperson for the Atlantic Canadian Anti-Sealing Coalition. “The commercial seal hunt is a large industrialized slaughter of marine mammals for their fur.”

Anti-sealing groups and animal welfare organizations are particularly incensed by the commercial seal hunt as a result of the harmful way in which seals are killed and their unique targeting of newborns.

“Sealers routinely hook seals in the eye, cheek, or mouth to avoid harming the fur,” says Katz. “Many times, these babies haven’t even learned how to swim before being slaughtered for something nobody needs.”

The quota hike

In light of unprecedented climate changes, ice melting, and high seal pup mortality rates, animal rights organizations asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to cancel the Gulf phase of the annual hunt as a precautionary measure. Shea declined, however, declaring that the decision would have to be made by the sealers. She later announced that the hunt would go ahead – this time with an increased quota – a decision that did not sit well with anti-sealing groups, who saw the decision as politically motivated.

“It’s a typical pugnacious response from the government thumbing their noses at critics and an empty gesture of support for sealers,” says Curran. “The government is desperate to maintain the Atlantic Canadian votes. They know that if they say to the fishing and sealing industry, a powerful voting lobby, ‘you can’t kill surviving pups,’ they will remember that when they go to the polls.”

The government, however, is remaining resolute in the assertion that this year’s quota had nothing to do with politics, and is merely a scientifically-based number that changes annually according to research and statistics.

“The quota, or the total allowable catch, sets an upper limit of what can be sustainably harvested by the sealers in any given year. It’s set based on a number of factors like science, the health of the population, the ice conditions, weather factors, and migration patterns,” explains Alan Balil, of the DFO. “It says this is how much you can harvest without harming the population in the long term, not how many seals we want them to kill.”

Anti-sealing groups believe that other recent gestures from the government testify to the malicious nature of the hike. From the Governor General’s public snacking on a slain seal’s heart in Nunavut last May to parliament’s overwhelming vote to have members of the Canadian Olympic team wear bits of baby seal on their uniforms, and finally, last week’s Parliament luncheon – which served seal meat as the main course – Curran says that the quota hike is consistent with the government’s larger response to the EU’s banning of seal products last year.

“DFO has a track record of sacrificing conservation in the name of economics,” says Curran. “For example, the polar bear has been listed as endangered since 1975, but Canada opposed the ban on the trade so that they can be killed for trophies. Another case in point is cod. They closed and reopened the gulf so many times and upped the quota, that they fished it to commercial extinction.”

According to the Canadian Press, even veteran sealer Jack Troake has said that given the declining demand for seal pelts and declining price. “To us sealers, [the hike] sounds a little stupid.”

Many organizations also allege that the government is taking advantage of the Inuit hunt in the hopes of blurring the line between the two hunts.

“The Canadian government is using the Inuit, whose hunting is not under threat, to push the commercial seal hunt, which is a hideously cruel massacre,” says Katz. “If anything, the EU’s banning of seal products from commercial hunt, which makes up 97 per cent of seal products, wouldn’t harm the Inuit hunt whereas it might now.”

“The Inuit are being used as pawns by the Canadian government by running a campaign to blur the lines between the two hunts in an effort to fool the public into thinking that the seal hunt is necessary and part of Canadian tradition, which it isn’t,” says Curran.

The government disagrees, asserting that the mention of the Inuit seal hunt is only in reference to the genuine concern that the EU’s ban will threaten Inuit industry.

“The Inuit exemption was written into the ban by the EU,” says Balil. “But it’s not going to be effective in practical terms. The ban will affect the infrastructure that [the Inuit] rely on to sell their products.”

The great sealing debate

If the members of the two camps could at least agree on the facts, then much of the debate could be resolved. While the government insists that there is a thriving industry for seal pelts – there were about $10 million in exports to Russia last year – and that they are looking to expand the export of seal meat to China, anti-sealing groups believe that there are no markets in existence.

“To say that the markets are slumping is optimistic,” says Curran. “The truth is that the markets are dead and they’re not coming back. The government is holding out false hopes to the sealers saying that there are new markets in Asia, but they should realize that it’s over instead of wasting millions of our tax dollars.”

The two sides also disagree fundamentally on whether DFO’s goal is really to preserve the seal population or, in fact, to exterminate the population, which some fishermen believe is responsible for the depletion of lucrative commercial fish stocks.

“Decisions that should be based on marine biologists and climate specialists are being left in the hands of fishermen wielding clubs and rifles – men with a vested interest in bringing seals to the brink of extinction and beyond,” says Curran. “This is not a plan for conservation as DFO claims. It’s a plan for extermination.”

The anti-sealing argument hinges on both the notion that the seal population is in danger and that the commercial seal hunt does not kill the animals in a humane way, with DFO adamantly refuting both claims.

“We have scientists who assess the seal populations throughout the year,” says Balil. “This is an ongoing project, we are always managing the state of the stock. It’s a healthy, thriving population, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that it stays like that.”

Curran says, however, that seals are among top predators like sharks and polar bears that are crucial to the marine ecosystem – and that have both been over-hunted in the past few years. Even if the population is currently healthy, adds Sheryl Fink from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, it is important to be taking a precaution
ary approach given the vast climate changes.

The most controversial point of disagreement is, of course, whether the seals are at least being killed according to humane stipulations. Balil says the hunt is monitored closely, with fishery officers making sure that the sealers – who he assures have been licensed only after a number of years as apprentices – are following a strictly defined three-step process when killing the seal. Fink disagrees, however, arguing that the rapidity of the hunt renders humane killing processes unfeasible.

“Because of the sheer expediency of the hunt – 300,000 killed in a matter of days or weeks – and the geographic areas over which it occurs, it is difficult to monitor or enforce regulations. There are boats competing to meet the quotas, so they’re trying to get the skins off as many seals as quickly as possible before the ice melts.”

And as for all the ghastly images attesting to the gruesome and wasteful nature of the seal hunt? Balil says the issue has been dramatized and manipulated by animal rights groups.

“Some groups have done very well at pulling at emotional strings using some images of white coats, which cannot be legally harvested in Canada,” he explains. “But they still use those images because they appeal to emotions rather than the facts. Seal hunting is also a particularly emotional issue because it happens in full view. Anyone can request an observer permit – that’s how they get those images.”

Whether the seal population is really endangered, whether animal welfare practices are being followed, and whether there really is a market for seal products, are all questions that need to be resolved before the two parties can agree on how to proceed.

While Katz avows that Canada’s image will be equated with the seal kill until the slaughter is stopped, Balil says, “there’s a lot of misinformation out there. It’s difficult to judge from a distance, but I can tell you that the compliance rate has been quite high.”