Six kinds of seals inhabit the waters off Canada’s Atlantic coast: harp, hooded, grey, ringed, bearded and harbour. Harp seals account for the vast majority of those hunted, so for the purposes of this article, all references to seals shall imply harp seals.
By Jody McCutcheon
Whomever you talk to, Canada’s seal hunt is a sensitive subject. As far back as 1978, French explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau noted the major stakeholders were acting on emotion rather than logic. Today, little has changed. Sealers hunt not for money, but for the love of tradition, the thrill of the hunt, you name it; protesters vehemently denounce the seemingly brutal killing of cute little seal pups; and while animal welfare agencies worldwide encourage bans on Canadian seafood in response to the seal hunt, the Canadian government continues to subsidize an industry for which international demand is at an all-time low.
The debate focuses on issues of cruelty, conservation and economics. Should the Canadian seal hunt and its ugly “killing floes” come to an end? If so, why?
A Question of Cruelty
Seals are harvested for their skin, fat and meat. (In the days before Viagra, adult seal penis bones were also in high demand on the Asian aphrodisiac market.) Warm and waterproof, seal pelts make for excellent cold-weather clothing. Seal fat is used in cooking oil, fuel, soap, lubricants, etc. Seal meat is rich in protein, iron, calcium, magnesium and Vitamins A and B12. Subsistence hunters, such as Canadian Inuit, use virtually every part of the seal, plus they hunt mainly adult seals. But subsistence hunting accounts for only about three percent of the annual Canadian seal hunt.
The other ninety-seven percent comes from the commercial hunt, which targets baby seals (between the ages of two weeks and three months, when pelts fetch the best prices) and takes only the pelt, leaving the rest. A Humane Society report suggests that over 98% of seals killed are younger than three months old. That’s an awful lot of seal pup carcasses rotting on blood-soaked ice floes. To an outsider looking in, the Canadian commercial seal hunt looks gruesome and wasteful.
However cruel it may look, hunters are held up to stringent protocols of killing and skinning seals, as defined in Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR). Seals are killed with firearms from long range and hakapiks from short-range. The hakapik is a long-handled hammer with a blunt side for killing and a claw side for dragging. Canada’s MMR require the skull be crushed immediately to minimize suffering. Hakapiks are more reliable than firearms, as long-range rifle shots often only wound the seal, which might then fall off the ice floe and drown, as pups often cannot swim.
Anti-sealing activists have used the hakapik to symbolise the inhumane nature of seal-killing, such that the Premiers of Newfoundland and Nunavut moved to ban the tool in 2008. In fact, hakapiks are not only more reliable killing instruments than firearms; when properly used, they’re more efficient (i.e., humane). The American Humane Society even spoke out against the proposed ban, arguing that without the use of hakapiks, seal suffering would increase. Consider also that seals are free-range, so they don’t suffer the appalling pre-slaughter fate of factory-farmed animals.
Annoyed by a seemingly illogical protest, Cousteau back in 1978 compared the slaughter of seals with the slaughter of pigs, suggesting pig-killing is equally as vicious yet condoned by the consuming public nonetheless. Perhaps this is related to the fact that pigs are killed in slaughterhouses, behind closed doors. By contrast, commercial seal killing is performed on a very visible, outdoor stage, making it more vulnerable to protest. The seal hunt may appear cruel and inhumane, but in theory it’s no worse than what goes on inside a slaughterhouse.
In practice, however, humane killing isn’t always possible. A 2012 veterinary report suggests that inherent variables in seal-hunting environments, such as high winds, ocean swells, low temperatures and visibility, melting ice floes and the speed at which the killing occurs, prevent consistent application of MMR-sanctioned killing methods. Another study depicted hunters skinning live seals in up to three of every eight cases. When the MMR aren’t obeyed, seal killing descends into cruelty. And unfortunately, monitoring the hunt can be difficult, as Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) authorities must police a vast area. Canada’s seal hunt mainly occurs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the Newfoundland-Labrador coast, in an area called The Front, every March and April.
A Question of Conservation?
Then there is the issue of conservation. In order to avoid overhunting seals, the DFO instituted the concept of Total Allowable Catch (TAC) in 1971. Since 2000, the Canadian commercial seal hunt’s TAC has averaged about 320,000 per year. Between 1971 and 2013, sealers harvested an average of about sixty-five percent of the yearly TAC. According to a 2011 DFO report, the seal population has increased fourfold in that time, to about eight million seals. In the last five years, with worldwide demand for seal products plummeting (more on that later), the harvest has been about nineteen percent of the TAC. Seals are not an endangered species.
Another potential conservation issue comes from recent rising temperatures, which have melted significant amounts of ice. Adult seals traditionally birth their young on these disappearing floes, so now they must find new whelping grounds. When pups that can’t swim fall off the floes, they simply drown. In 2007, the DFO began reducing the hunt quota by twenty percent to account for this new danger.
Also consider the relationship between seals and fish. A seal will eat at least a tonne of fish every year, so without regular culling of the seal population, Canada’s fish populations may be vulnerable to significant decreases. In fact, the European Union still somewhat hypocritically practices seal culling to protect its own fish stocks, despite having banned seal products from European markets.
Anyone still worried about conservation issues, take note: Canadian regulations clearly describe who can and can’t hunt seals. If you’re not an Aboriginal, or if you live below 53 degrees North latitude, you need a valid commercial sealing license to hunt. Furthermore, beginning in 2014, new measures will make it tougher to obtain a license. Hunters must undergo training in a new MMR-sanctioned, three-step process of humane killing that includes stunning, monitoring for unconsciousness and bleeding out. (While this training is now mandatory, sealers have voluntarily been taking it since 2009.) Sealers who breach conduct—hunting of newborn “whitecoat” seals, using unsanctioned killing methods, sealing without a valid license, etc.—face penalties including court-imposed fines, license prohibitions and seizure of catches, fishing gear and vessels/vehicles.
Dollars or Sense?
While the Feds are tightening regulatory screws on hunters, the Newfoundland-Labrador government subsidized the sealing industry to the tune of $3.6 million in 2013. And now the province and the Feds have teamed up on a $500,000 marketing campaign to promote seal meat domestically and abroad, even though there’s no traditional market for seal meat outside Newfoundland-Labrador and Asia.
Yet at least twenty-three countries have banned the import of seal products, including major markets Russian, Taiwan, Mexico, the EU and US. Canada appealed to the World Trade Organization for exemption status, but the WTO recently upheld the ban. In the face of collapsing international demand, what point is there in adding new regulations and subsidizing sealers to hunt unwanted seals? These measures seem like desperate attempts to keep a dying industry on life support.
Look at it this way: the 2004 seal harvest was worth CAD$16.5 million, not even three percent of Newfoundland-Labrador’s $600 million fishing industry. That’s without accounting for subsidies. More recently, the 2011 seal hunt was worth just over CAD$1 million. On average, commercial fishermen-cum-sealers earn less than 5% of their annual income through the seal hunt. From a pure number-crunching perspective, the seal hunt makes little in terms of dollars and sense.
A Plea For Logic
To whom it may concern: Eliminate the Canadian commercial seal hunt, please. Not because the seals are killed inhumanely, or because of conservation issues, or because sealers will lose their economic lifeblood. No, the Canadian commercial seal hunt should be nixed because international demand for seal products is all but dead. For better or worse, the world’s decision-makers have been swayed by decades of a protest that was shortsighted at best and spurious at worst. It’s time to stop acting on emotion and—once and for all—let logic have a say in the seal hunt.