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Cover Story March 9, 2006


  by lyle e davis


by lyle e davis


On ice floes off the coast of Newfoundland, baby harp seals, those cute, fluffy white, doe-eyed seal pups,  recently weaned from their mothers at the age of only 12 to 25 days old, will soon be  clubbed to death.


It is not a pretty site, these “hunts.”  The hunters ‘stun’ their prey.  Stunning methods include: kicking in the face and/ or beating the babys on the head with clubs or hakapik. (A hakapik is a long pole with a sharp pick on the end of it, similar to an ice pick). Once stunned, the sealer proceeds to skin the animal.


According to IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare www.ifaw.org) the season for Canada’s annual hunt for baby seals has begun. Over the next several weeks up to 319,500 baby seals will be killed for their fur. Canada’s annual seal hunt is the largest marine mammal hunt in the world with a three-year kill quota of almost one million seals. Last year, according to statistics provided by the Canadian government, 365,971 seals were killed and 96.6% of those were less than 3 months old. Seals are skinned for their pelts and then sold to fur distributors to feed the demand of the fashion industry.


“Many people mistakenly think Canada stopped hunting baby seals decades ago,” said Fred O’Regan, IFAW’s president and CEO. “But the size of Canada’s modern, commercial hunt is bigger now than it has been in 50 years.”


Opponents of Canada's seal hunt have a new and powerful ally in their bid to end the annual slaughter: Paul and Heather Mills McCartney, who took to the ice floes last week and frolicked with the doe-eyed pups just weeks before the harvest gets under way, are lending their considerable influence to stopping the slaughter.  Last week they appeared on Larry King Live and pleaded with Canadian officials to end the hunt.


The Canadian government endorses the harvest as a cultural right for many Maritimers and announced a hunting management plan in 2003 with a quota of 975,000 seals over three years.


About 325,000 seal pups were killed during the hunt last year, bringing the local fishermen $14.5 million (euro12 million) in supplemental income, which they say their families badly need during the winter off-season.


Harp seals have been hunted commercially from the waters off Newfoundland since the early 1700s. They were first harvested for their oil but now are culled mostly for their pelts, sold mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, China and Russia.


During a recent hunt, veterinarians who examined dead seals concluded that 42% of the seals examined had most likely been skinned while they were alive and still conscious.


Adults and resisting mothers are shot and/or clubbed and skinned and in the case of males, have their penis bones removed. (In Asia, the penis bones are sought as aphrodasiacs . . . even though scientific studies show they have no aphrodasiacal qualities).  If convenient to do so, some of the bodies are then recovered and processed into pet food or used to feed the animals in fur farms.


Polls consistently show that most Canadians oppose the hunt, but still the Canadian government and fishing industry refuse to end it.


Why does this slaughter of the innocent continue?


The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972 and the European Union banned the white pelts of baby seals in 1983. The British government also is considering banning the import of seal goods. Groups such as Respect for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, are encouraging people to boycott Canadian seafood as a show of solidarity.  That boycott even extends into North San Diego County as two national chains and major seafood purveyors, The Red Lobster, with one location in Oceanside, and The Olive Garden, with a restaurant in Escondido, are both owned by The Darden Group, a major purchaser of seafoods from Canada.  Why Red Lobster? This well known restaurant chain is one of the largest purchasers of Canadian Seafood in the world making it a prime target of the seafood boycott.


Each spring the entire Northwest Atlantic harp seal population migrates to the East Coast of Newfoundland to mate, give birth and nurse their young. In one of nature’s great wildlife spectacles, thousands of seals are born on the pristine ice floes off eastern Canada in early March.


The hunt begins when the seal pups are weaned from their mother and begin to moult. Seal pups may be legally killed once they begin to moult their fluffy white coats, usually at 12-14 days old.


IFAW is the only organization in the world to consistently observe and document the hunt each year. For the last 36 years IFAW has brought media and government officials from around the world to view the hunt firsthand. This year, European parliamentarians and media from around the globe are observing the hunt with IFAW’s help.


The international community is appalled by the cruelty of Cananda’s hunt for baby seals. In opposition, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands are creating legislation to ban seal products and the U.S. and the European Council are creating resolutions condemning the hunt. In the U.S. seals and other marine mammals have been protected from hunting since 1972 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


In compliance with Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations the main hunt usually begins in early March, and continues through May, or until the quota has been reached.  The seal hunt is one of the very few hunts that occurs in the spring when young are being born. Most other large mammals are hunted in the fall, and are protected from hunting in the spring.


The Greenland hunt (which is essentially unregulated) occurs mainly between June and September, when the harp seals have migrated to the waters between Greenland and the Canadian eastern arctic.


Taking into account both the Canadian and Greenland hunts, the Northwest Atlantic harp seals can be hunted at virtually all times of the year. No other hunt for a North American large mammal population is managed in this way.


As the season grows older, some seals are shot from boats rather than clubbed, however, even under the best of conditions, it would be difficult to kill a seal with one shot; under the conditions of the seal hunt, it is almost impossible. As a result, many seals are left to writhe in agony for several minutes before finally being killed. In IFAW’s 2000 seal hunt investigation, the group documented a seal being shot repeatedly in open water for eight minutes, as it struggled desperately to escape.


What is the total number

of seals killed?


The Canadian government issues "landed catch" statistics that are widely reported in the media and often misinterpreted as the total number of seals killed.


These reports, however, only count the number of seals who are "landed" at seal processing facilities. They do not include seals who are killed during Greenland's hunt of the same population, nor do they account for seals who are wounded but escape ("struck and lost"), or animals who are killed incidentally in fishing nets.


A recent study, "Estimating Total Kill of Northwest Atlantic Harp Seals, 1994-1998," in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Marine Mammal Science concluded that in 1998 the actual number of harp seals killed was somewhere between 406,258 and 548,903. This means more animals are being killed than would be considered prudent under a truly precautionary approach to harp seal management.


What percentage of seals killed are pups?


Usually around 80% of the seals killed in the commercial hunt are “young of the year” — between approximately 12 days and one year old (source: DFO, Proceeding of the National Marine Mammal Review Committee, Feb. 1999).


Is it illegal to kill whitecoat seals?


The Marine Mammal Regulations make it illegal for non-natives to barter, sell, or trade whitecoat seal products. The prohibition on selling these seals was intended to remove any reason for hunting them. A recent ruling by the Newfoundland Court of Appeal found this section of the Marine Mammal Regulations to be unconstitutional and, as a result, it cannot be enforced in Newfoundland.


What is the economic impact of the seal hunt?


One commonly used reason for supporting the hunt is that it supposedly provides jobs for people in Newfoundland. However, in reality, the hunt accounts for less than one half of one percent of Newfoundland’s Gross Domestic Product. Economists note that factors such as government-funded icebreaking services and lost revenue from tourism should be included in economic reports of the industry, and could mean the commercial seal hunt represents a net loss to the economy of Atlantic Canada.


Many people are surprised to learn that the entire fishery in Newfoundland accounts for only 1.6% of their economy. Certainly, the fishery, including the seal hunt, once played a vital role in the economic survival of the province. However, this is no longer the situation. Newfoundland’s economy has diversified to include many other, far more lucrative, industry sectors such as tourism, services, construction, public administration, manufacturing, and many more.


The sealing industry operates for a few weeks a year and provides a relatively small number of part-time jobs during that period. The seal hunt is not of vital importance to Newfoundland’s economy and does not represent meaningful job creation by the government. If Newfoundland is going to continue to develop in the changing Canadian economy, it is imperative that the federal government makes a solid commitment to the development of real, sustainable jobs — not pointless slaughter.


What products are made from seals?


There are very few markets today for any seal part. Markets that do exist are poor, and largely unstable. Traditional seal products include the meat, pelts, oil and penises.


According to the Canadian Sealers Association and industry statistics, there is a glut of seal pelts on the market. Before the seal hunt even began last year, there were more than 100,000 seal pelts stockpiled by sealing plants. The Sealers Association explains that the number of seals killed in the past four years has grown at an incredible rate, outpacing market demand.


Seals are also killed for their oil, three different grades of which are produced. Industrial grade oils are shipped to Europe and Asia, and human grade oil (which is used to produce a supplement for Omega 3 fatty acids) is sold to Asia. Other revenue comes from the sale of seal penises, as aphrodisiacs in some parts of Asia, although this market has recently decreased.


What do harp seals eat?


Traditionally, the diet of harp seals has been described by examining the contents of their stomachs. Since the first reports of stomach content analyses in 1941, at least 67 species of fish and 70 species of invertebrates have been recorded. Clearly, harp seals eat a wide array of fish and invertebrates, although it is difficult to express confidently the relative importance of these species.


Atlantic cod is a minor but consistent prey species, estimated to make up less than 3% of the harp seal’s annual diet.


Did harp seals cause the

collapse of cod stocks?


At the time of the cod stock collapse off eastern Canada in 1992 it was popular to blame seals, over-fishing by Europeans, cold water, and a variety of other factors. As early as 1994, two Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists concluded "that the collapse of northern cod can be attributed solely to overexploitation [by humans]" (Hutchings and Myers 1994). Most people now agree that seals did not cause the collapse of any East coast fish stocks.


Are harp seals impeding the recovery of

depleted cod stocks?


There is no scientific evidence that they are. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans acknowledges that while there are concerns about the impact of seals on the depleted stocks of groundfish, a cull — the killing of seals for the express purpose of reducing the populations — is not being considered at this time for reasons explained below (source: Atlantic Seal Hunt 1999 Management Plan, DFO).


Would a reduced seal population benefit

commercial fisheries?


There is no scientific evidence that it would. In fact, many scientists now believe that reducing the harp seal population might hurt commercial fisheries. Those who support culling harp seals often refer to estimates of the annual consumption of fish by seals to support their demand for an increased seal kill. But in reality, estimates of food consumption tell us nothing about whether seals are having direct or indirect effects on the abundance of various fish stocks, or on the catches of commercial fisheries.


In a complex marine ecosystem it is simplistic to assume that by removing one species, another would benefit. In fact, in the case of seals, the effect might be detrimental to the recovery of cod stocks since seals also eat the predators of Atlantic cod. For example, harp seals in the Northwest Atlantic feed on squid, which are a predator of juvenile Atlantic cod. In this situation, a reduction in harp seals could lead to an increase in squid numbers, resulting in even greater predation on cod.


A brief chronology of seal hunting:


1899 - The century ends with a total recorded kill of 33 million seals.


1950s Canadian scientists begin to study the seal herds and express concern about the number of animals killed.


Harp seal population continues to decline. Scientists conclude that the population declined by 50-66% between 1950 and 1970, and is now in serious trouble.

1972 United States passes the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prohibiting the importation of marine mammal products.


1995 Brian Tobin, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, announces new subsidies to encourage sealers to kill more animals, including a new "personal use" license. The quota is increased to 250,000.


2000 Markets for seal products are saturated, prices for pelts plummet and Canadian catches are low.


2001 Herb Dhaliwhal, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, maintains a quota of 275,000 seals, despite evidence that this level of killing is not sustainable.


John Efford is a Newfoundland Member of Parliament who was a former Newfoundland Minister of Fisheries.


On May 4, 1998, as recorded in Hansard, the transcript of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, Efford had delivered the following address:


"Mr. Speaker, I would like to see the 6 million seals, or what ever number is out there, killed and sold, or destroyed or burned. I do not care what happens to them. What they (the sealers) wanted was to have the right to go out and kill the seals. They have that right, and the more they kill the better I will love it."


Take Action


If you are moved to help out in the fight to end the slaughter of innocents, you may wish to liaison withThe International Fund for Animal Welfare.  There are a number of sites on the Internet where research is fairly simple; a  list of which follows at the end of this story. 


Several of these sites will urge you to send an email to key politicians who have the power to stop this hunt. There are also summaries of the issues to include in your letter.


If you are so moved, send your letters to Right Honorable Stephen Harper at pm@pm.gc.ca and to the Canadian Tourism Commission at:



Using regular mail or fax, you use the following contact information:

P.M. Stephen Harper

Office of the Prime Minister

80 Wellington Street

Ottawa Canada

K1A 0A2

Fax: 613 941-6900


You may wish to explain that this ongoing seal hunt will make you think twice before vacationing in Canada. Point out that a recent HSUS survey revealed that 79% of U.S. residents surveyed opposed Canada’s seal hunt, and that 65% said they would not be likely to vacation in Canada if their vacation dollars were used to subsidize the seal hunt.


Too often we treat other animals as if their flesh were somehow insensitive to pain, as though fear were limited to the human experience. Most of us give no thought to the obvious value of pain and fear for the survival of many slow-breeding species. And our ignorance is never challenged by an animal's being able to say, "That hurts me," or "I am frightened."


Unthinkingly, we exploit animals in many ways — in the name of science, food, companionship, and whatever else we feel is necessary to our own survival or comfort. We do awful things to animals, but the worst that we do, it seems to me, is to kill them for the sake of luxury and novelty. This is why I believe the seal hunt is a tragedy that should fill us all with shame.


One day, as we become more sensitive to our fellow travelers in time and space, I believe that the demand of civilized people will end the hunt. Then I will be able to travel to the ice out of love, not out of fear for my friends, the harp seals.


Brian Davies

Seal Song

Sources used for this story:












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