The Truth Behind The Canadian Seal Hunt

The Canadian seal hunt is highly controversial. Should it be banned? Here’s what we think

By Jody McCutcheon

*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.

Whomever you talk to, the Canadian 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 out of tradition, the thrill of the hunt, or ‘conservation’.

On the other side, protesters and animal lovers 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 Canadian seal hunt, the Canadian government continues to heavily subsidise 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? We’d say yes. And the reasons may not be what you’d expect.

Image below: A mother seal mourns her bludgeoned baby. Picture by the humane society international

A Question of Cruelty

Seals used to be killed for their skin, fat and meat. Adult seal penis bones were also in high demand on the Asian aphrodisiac market. Warm and waterproof, seal pelts made for excellent cold-weather clothing. Seal fat was used as cooking oil, fuel, soap, and lubricants. Seal meat is rich in protein, iron, calcium, magnesium and Vitamins A and B12.

For all these reasons, subsistence hunters, such as the Canadian Inuit, used virtually every part of the seal, plus they hunted mainly adult seals. But today, subsistence hunting accounts for only about three percent of the annual Canadian seal hunt. And frankly, even for native peoples, there are now better, less cruel means of gaining all the products seals used to provide for them.

The other ninety-seven percent of hunted seals is from the so-called ‘commercial hunt’, which targets baby seals (between the ages of two weeks and three months, when pelts fetch the best prices). These hunters take only the pelt, leaving the rest of the corpse to rot. In other words, the hunt is only to serve the fur industry.

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 seal hunt looks gruesome and wasteful.

Baby 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.

Species Hypocrisy?

Anti-sealing activists have used the hakapik to symbolise the inhumane nature of seal-killing. The result is 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) than guns. The American Humane Society even spoke out against the proposed ban, arguing that without the use of hakapiks, seal suffering would increase.

Jacques Cousteau, back in 1978, compared the slaughter of seals with the slaughter of pigs, suggesting pig-killing is equally as vicious, yet is condoned by the consuming public nonetheless. And the truth is – he has a point. If you’re going to protest the killing of animals, you should protest the slaughter of food animals, too. After all, there are literally billions of them killed each year, and in far more brutal conditions. These domestic, sentient animals are usually subjected to extreme stress and misery all their lives, and end their lives witnessing their fellow species being slaughtered, as they wait their turn in a queue.

And the worst part? No matter what animal is being slaughtered, humane killing isn’t always possible, for a variety of reasons. With respect to seals, for example, 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. In fact, there’s no denying that seal hunting often descends into brutal cruelty, and some hunters enjoy it. Unfortunately, monitoring the hunt can be difficult, as Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) authorities must police a vast area. The Canadian 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 Greenpeace activist sprays a baby seal’s coat to render it useless for the fur industry

A Question of Conservation?

Then there is the issue of conservation with regards to the Canadian seal hunt. In order to avoid over hunting, the DFO instituted the concept of Total Allowable Catch (TAC) in 1971. Since 2000, the Canadian seal hunt has averaged about 320,000 animals 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, the harvest has been about nineteen percent of the TAC. Seals are not an endangered species. And given their rising numbers, we need to 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.

Sit-in against Seal Hunt in front of Canadian Embassy

Dollars or Sense?

While you’d think the Canadian seal hunt takes place mainly for monetary reasons, the truth is, there’s less and less demand for seal-based products.

Perhaps for that reason, the Newfoundland-Labrador government subsidised 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 subsidising 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.

Canadian seal hunt

A Plea For Logic

So, should the Canadian seal hunt be banned? That’s a hard YES. Not because the seals are killed inhumanely, or because it’s cruel, or due to conservation issues, or because sealers will lose their economic lifeblood. No, the Canadian seal hunt should simply be nixed because there is no reason for it.

Why are innocent animals being bludgeoned to death when international demand for seal products is all but dead.? There’s no commercial market. People are as appalled by the killing of these animals as they would be by the mass slaughter of kittens.

Those who argue that the seals need culling to save fish stocks forget that it’s we humans who have depleted them, not seals.

The reality is – we humans need to stop messing with this planet and the animals we share it with. Period.

Do you believe the Canadian seal hunt should be stopped? Sign this petition!

Sources used for this article:

Images: Main: Pixabay 3&4: Greenpeace 5: Wikicommons


10 thoughts on “The Truth Behind The Canadian Seal Hunt”

  1. The commercial seal hunt is the largest marine mammal slaughter on earth and completely unsustainable. The vast majority of Canadians polled want this international embarrassment to end. The commercial seal hunt is NOT tradition, it began 350 years ago, whereas the Inuit people have been hunting seal for 4,000 years are deceived into believing the two are one and the same. FACT: our gov. supports the seal hunt which is subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer. There is much conjecture as to why they would support a failing industry but a lot of pressure is derived from the cod fishing industry and east coast voters. Plenty of dirty deals have been struck to use seal carcasses and combat the negative publicity of skinning baby seals (some still breathing) and leaving carcasses on the ice to rot. For years unwanted carcasses have been dumped in China so this dirty deal was struck Which government has animal welfare on their mind, neither. China gets Canada’s tortured seals carcasses and Canada gets China’s tortured dog and cat fur. 65% of all fur products are dog or cat fur from China’s horrific dogmeat industry. Dogs and cats are often tortured and skinned alive because of the false belief adrenaline makes the meat sweeter. Why Canadians continue to club seals sometimes skinning them alive is a complete mystery known only to those who kill.

  2. Bullshit. It’s a horrible tradition. There is NO EXCUSE for it. Wildlife is wildlife. And plus your facts are wrong. You don’t have to kill the seals to get more fish or any other ridiculous excuse. And yes, I don’t eat pig either. That is also wrong.

  3. I cannot believe that someone would suggest stopping the seal hunt because it is too insignificant as a means of income for fishermen. Jody is there a portion of your income that you’re going to abandon because it accounts for only three percent of your total salary. These are the same ole naive suggestions we hear often. The reason the Seal Hunt is so small is because of people like celebrities who live such vicarious existences don’t understand the human factor involved when a way of life is destroyed for a small group of people.My people of Newfoundland have given their lives throughout history to make this industry work. Instead they have become branded as bloodthirsty villains.

  4. Oh and Ashley, it’s quite obvious you “don’t work for” any industry benefiting from this despicable behavior. You’re “quite right” those awful animal rights groups are trying to screw us out of jobs (an EXTREMELY American way of twisting a situation!)
    And ps: animals killed so rich people can wear snotty clothes to keep up with the Jonses is NOT a Resource as you word-twistingly put it, it’s animals.. Being killed… So people can look swanky,
    Such obvious and pedestrian wordplay is also very American – over here we generally can count to 3 and understand preverications falling out of people’s mouths.
    Save your weak rhetoric for people who historically fall for such things!

  5. I love how this article hammers home the word CANADIAN every sentance.
    Yes.. It’s us evil Canadians, right…
    A) In my 40 year life in Canada I’ve never seen a single person WEARING baby seal fur
    B) you know why? Because it is AMERICANS and Europeans who wear it!
    C) by buying it and wearing it AMERICANS pay the bills of the seal hunters and make it worth their time.

    This is like Americans shoving millions of cheeseburgers down their gullets, but then judging Amazonian leaders when the rainforests are cut down for their unnecessary and unhealthy food.
    Stop funding horrible things then shifting the blame to the hitman you have contracted.
    Crazy idea: stop thinking promoting violent baby deaths in order to “look good”,
    Thennn sit on your imaginary high horse and judge.
    Such a familiar situation, the US creates or promotes an industry which destroys land, animals or ethics in another land-
    Then sits in judgement oblivious of the integral role YOU play in these activities.
    Yes, the world is hostage to the almighty US dollar, and you know it.
    You are making choices others have to live with, and then have the ignorance and gall to sit in judgement!

    Ps: I’m fully against the seal hunting. I just know we aren’t doing it for our domestic market!

  6. Yes, end the seal HUNT and implement a seal CULL instead. Then you can have government employees on a salary kill the over abundant seals and leave them to rot fur and meat. This is how the Netherlands solves their muskrat problem, so why shouldn’t we, as a civilized country, not follow suite??
    The solution is to find new markets and use as much as possible of an overabundant resource. The hunt is humane, seals are a green, organic, renewable resource. Let’s go for it>

  7. in a world where finite resources are dwindling, sustainable renewable resources are of utmost importance. i agree completely with your statement, time for emotion to leave this issue and logic to come in. the seal industry is suffering from an attack by AR groups, who have used a smear campiagn to manipulate peoples emotions. the reality of ending the sealhunt in canada, taxpayers will be left to foot the bill for a buyott and employment insurance benefits for generations to come. if the world knows the truth about the canadian seal hunt, instead of the manipulative information spread to the world by profitering AR groups. the canadian economy will gain from a viable industry that produces quality products. so yes time to take the emotional spin away from the seal industry. an end to the seal industry wont bring an end to the killing of seals. it will begin culling. nobody will benefit from that, including the seals. if seals are going to be killed anyway, why not make it beneficial to the economy.

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