Stop the Seal Hunt

Stop the Seal Hunt

Stop the Seal Hunt


As soon as newborn (also known as "whitecoat") harp seals begin to shed their white coats, as young as 12 days of age, they can be legally killed in Canada. Baby seals that are shedding their white coats are called "ragged jackets" and thousands of them are killed each year. Images of ragged jackets are nearly indistinguishable from those of whitecoats" and are sometimes used by animal protection groups.

Official DFO kill reports show 97% of the seals killed over the past five years have been under 3 months of age, and the majority has been less than one month old.

Almost all (97%) the seals killed over the past five years have been under three months old. At the time of slaughter, many had not taken their first swim.

Harp seal pups are weaned as young as 12 days of age. After the mothers leave, the baby seals move together on the ice floes, forming what is described as a harp seal nursery. For up to six weeks the pups fast, living off the fat reserves from their mothers’ milk. During this time, the baby seals begin to practice their swimming skills but tend to remain on the surface of the ice. This is largely because they still have a high percentage of body fat, which makes it very difficult for them to dive or swim effectively. It is at this point that the hunters move in, clubbing and shooting the baby seals to death in front of each other.

The seal hunt provides very low economic returns for Canada, Newfoundland and individual sealers. In light of the negative impact the seal hunt has on Canada’s international reputation, its continuation cannot be justified on economic grounds.

Even in Newfoundland, where more than 90% of sealers live, revenues from sealing account for less than 1% of the Gross Domestic Product and less than 3% of the landed value of the fishery. Even northern cod, considered by many to be commercially extinct, makes up 8% of the landed value of Newfoundland’s fishery today.

Sealing is an off-season activity conducted by a few thousand fishermen from Canada’s east coast. The Newfoundland government itself estimates there are only 4,000 active sealers in any given year. Media reports and government data confirm they make, on average, less than 5% of their incomes from sealing, and the rest from commercial fisheries.

Any profits from the seal hunt are offset by the large government subsidies that continue to be provided to the sealing industry. Moreover, vessel owners must cover the cost of repairs to their boats, which are often damaged by heavy ice at the seal hunt (insurance companies impose a high deductible for vessels participating in the hunt).

The Canadian government continues to provide large subsidies for the sealing industry—subsidies clearly listed on government websites.

The government of Canada regularly provides subsidies to the sealing industry through Human Resources Development Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and other federal programs. These subsidies are provided in the form of grants and loans to seal processing plants, sealing industry associations and private companies, and cover capital costs, employee salaries, operating expenses, and product development and marketing.

In 2004 alone, more than $450,000 was provided by the Canadian government to two companies to develop seal products. Additionally, the Canadian Coast Guard continues to break ice for sealing vessels at taxpayer’s expense.

In 2001, the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment produced a report detailing over $20 million that had been provided to the sealing industry in government subsidies from 1995-2001.

The commercial seal hunt is wasteful—seals are taken for their fur, and their carcasses are almost always left to rot on the ice. The Canadian government deliberately tries to blur the lines between the commercial seal hunt, which is conducted by non-native people off Canada’s east coast, and subsistence hunting by Inuit people in Canada’s arctic region. But animal protection groups, including The HSUS, are not opposed to Inuit subsistence hunting. Canada’s commercial seal hunt is an industrial-scale slaughter conducted by fishermen from Canada’s east coast. The seals are killed for their skins, which are sold in overseas fashion markets. The carcasses are almost always left to rot on the ice because there are virtually no markets for the meat.

Each year, video footage of the hunt shows stockpiles of carcasses left across the ice floes and sealers dumping carcasses over the sides of their boats. DFO inspectors have acknowledged the large number of carcasses left to rot on the ice in internal documents. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary by the Government of Canada, Canadian international trade data clearly shows that Canada has not exported even one dollar’s worth of seal meat at any point in the last 5 years.

Claims that seal oil markets have grown substantially in recent years are also untrue. Seal oil is a byproduct of the skin trade (blubber is attached to the skins when they are removed from the seals). Canadian international trade data shows that Canadian exports of marine mammal oil in 2004 were valued at just about half of what they were in 2000 It is impossible to characterize this as "substantial growth."

Make no mistake, sealers kill seals for their skins—there is no trade in seal meat and trade in seal oil is brings in very little additional income.

National opinion polls consistently show the majority of Canadians are opposed to the seal hunt. Numerous national surveys have been commissioned in Canada to evaluate public opinion on the commercial seal hunt. They consistently show the solid majority of Canadians are opposed to the commercial seal hunt, and even higher percentage of Canadians opposes characteristic aspects of the commercial seal hunt.

The most recent of these, conducted in August 2005 by Environics Research, shows nearly 70% of Canadians holding an opinion oppose the commercial seal hunt outright. Opposition to specific aspects of the seal hunt was even higher with some 77% of voters, stating an opinion, calling for a ban on the killing of seals under three months of age and 78% opposed to government subsidies for the hunt. Seventy-eight per cent felt that killing seals by clubbing them is inherently cruel. Only 4% of respondents stated that they would be very upset if the hunt were ended.

The DFO allows the fishing industry to scapegoat seals for dwindling fish populations. This is one of the reasons the fishing industry demands high quotas for seals.

While the DFO may not state directly that culling seals will help fish stocks recover, it does little to counter that myth on Canada’s east cost. Ambiguous statements about "uncertainties" about the amounts of fish consumed by seals do nothing to stop Canada’s fishermen from blaming seals for their own destructive fishing practices. The Canadian government should take a strong stand and state what their own data shows—that culling marine mammals may actually prevent recovery of fish stocks. Instead, the DFO continues to fund research into the amount of fish consumed by seals, rather than addressing the ongoing problem of human overfishing.

It would be a practical impossibility for the DFO to adequately monitor the seal hunt. When provided with evidence of illegal activity at the seal hunt, the DFO fails to lay charges.

Canada’s commercial seal hunt is conducted with hundreds of fishing vessels, by thousands of sealers, over hundreds of miles of ocean. Adequately monitoring the seal hunt would be a practical impossibility even if the Canadian government had the political will to do so.

Currently, the DFO in the Gulf of St. Lawrence says it has one enforcement officer present for every seven sealing vessels—about one person for every 80 sealers. In 2003, the Charlottetown Guardian reported that the DFO enforcement budget for patrol hours allocated only 1.5 percent to monitoring the seal hunt. In the "front" (northeast of Newfoundland) there is virtually no monitoring of the seal hunt at all by the DFO. Moreover, the few enforcement people who do attend the seal hunt are usually there to check quotas and hunting permits—not treatment of the animals.

While DFO may occasionally lay charges against sealers, the cases usually involve violations such as hunting without a proper license, and normally result in warnings or small fines. The inadequate monitoring and token fines make it economically worthwhile for sealers to continue violating the Marine Mammal Regulations.

Notably, since 1998, animal protection groups have submitted video evidence of more than 700 apparent violations of the Marine Mammal Regulations—including seals being skinned alive. To date, not a single charge has been laid in response.

The DFO actively encourages sealers to exceed their quotas—often extending the seal hunting season beyond the regulated closing date even when the quota has been surpassed.

In 2002, the Canadian government knowingly allowed sealers to exceed their quota by more than 37,000 seals. In 2004, it again allowed sealers to exceed the quota by nearly 16,000 seals. In both years, sealers had gone well over the quota by May 15 (the regulated closing date), and yet the DFO chose to extend the sealing season into June.

The DFO has a long track record of reckless mismanagement of marine species by setting unsustainable quotas and allowing fishermen to deplete populations. Its latest management plan for harp seals allows sealers to reduce the population by 70 percent before the commercial hunting is stopped—a reckless approach that has led scientists around the world to condemn the DFO plan.

Training for sealers is woefully inadequate and promotes continuation of illegal and cruel hunting methods.

The larger vessel quota in Newfoundland is usually taken in just two days. This means a "two year apprenticeship" for sealers could (and likely would) involve as little as four days of training.

Licensed sealers teaching apprentices to hunt seals is also problematic—because if a sealer uses illegal or substandard killing techniques, he will simply pass this behaviour on to the apprentice.

The hunt is actually a cull that will reduce the population of harp seals.

A cull by definition is any hunt designed to reduce a population. The latest harp seal management plan involved a quota of nearly a million seals over a three year period. According to that plan, commercial sealing will only be stopped when the population is reduced by 70%. Notably, it is so widely understood that the Canadian government is allowing sealers to cull harp seals that the Cambridge University Press Advanced Learner’s Dictionary provides the following definition for the word cull: "When people cull animals, they kill them, especially the weaker members of a particular group of them, in order to reduce or limit their number: The plan to cull large numbers of baby seals has angered environmental groups."

History clearly shows today’s kill levels are unsustainable.

We know current kill levels are unsustainable because we have already witnessed the impact of this level of hunting on the harp seal population. Today’s kill levels meet and exceed those of the 1950s and 60s, when over-hunting reduced by harp seal population by nearly two thirds. By 1971, the population reach such a dangerous low (at 1.8 million) that senior Canadian government scientists said all commercial hunting should be stopped for at least ten years or we would risk losing the population. Thus, when the DFO says the harp seal population has "tripled" since the 1970s, they are conveniently neglecting to mention that the population was simply recovering from a dangerously low level.

Scientists condemn Canada’s current management plan for harp seals as reckless and unsustainable. A recent report on the matter by Greenpeace, entitled "The Canadian Seal Hunt: No Management and No Plan" notes that the DFO fails to take into account the impact of new threats to the harp seal population, such as climate change.

Countless wounded seals slip beneath the water’s surface after they are clubbed or shot, only to bleed to death slowly. They are not recovered, and they are not counted in official kill statistics. There has been no conclusive study on how many seals are "struck and lost" in the commercial seal hunt in Canada. Video evidence of the Canadian seal hunt clearly shows a large number of wounded seals disappearing beneath the water’s surface year after year, and studies from Greenland indicate up to half of the animals shot at in open water may be lost. But even if the Canadian government’s estimate of 5 percent was correct—that still translates into a cruel death for over 15,000 seals each year.

Regardless of the killing implement used, the commercial seal hunt is inherently cruel because of the environment in which it operates. Canada’s commercial seal hunt is an industrial scale slaughter conducted with hundreds of vessels over hundreds of miles of ocean. Sealers compete against each other to fill quotas, killing as many animals as quickly as they can. In 2005, more than 146,000 seals were killed in just two days in Newfoundland; another 101,000 were killed over three days in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Weather conditions, ocean swell, the experience of the sealer, and many other factors contribute to the amount of time it takes to render the seal unconscious or dead.

The 2002 veterinary study referred to by the DFO was conducted on sealing vessels in the presence of enforcement officers, while sealers knew they were being observed. It is our contention that given the methodology, the results of this study were not only predictable, but inevitable.

The Canadian commercial seal hunt involves a level of cruelty that no thinking, compassionate person would tolerate if they could see it for themselves.

While cruelty may exist in other wildlife hunts and in domestic animal slaughters, this does not change the irrefutable fact that Canada’s commercial seal hunt results in considerable, unacceptable, and needless suffering. Veterinary studies, video evidence and eye-witness testimony by independent journalists, scientists and parliamentarians confirms that seals are often skinned alive, that conscious seal pups are routinely hooked with metal spikes and dragged across the ice, that injured seals are often thrown into stockpiles and left to suffocate in their own blood, that seals are shot and left to suffer in agony, and that wounded seals often slip beneath the surface of the water where they bleed to death slowly and are never recovered. This is a level of cruelty to animals that Canadians find unacceptable, especially given it occurs to produce frivolous fashion items.

Why are harp seals being clubbed to death?

Video showing what’s happening. (And here’s more video.)

Five ways to stop the seal hunt

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