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Why Are We Still Hunting Seals?

Canada keeps subsidizing the clubbing and skinning of infant seals in their nursery.

By Rex Weyler 11 Apr 2005 |
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Newfoundlanders are good people, modest, hospitable, funny, and fiercely independent. Their fishing and sealing industries meant a lot to them. The Fisheries mandarins, however, have thoroughly botched the management of these resources. No one will be shocked that they blame seals for the decline of fish, and environmentalists for the decline in Canada’s stature. The North Atlantic Harp seal population once maintained itself at over 30 million animals. Shoreline hunting existed for centuries without significantly reducing this population. Between 1750 and 1950, however, seagoing ships reduced the herd to about 3.5 million, approximately 10% of the peak. From 1951, Canada kept a seal census, but pelt landings crashed from 350,000 per year to 120,000 by 1972.

In 1972, Dr. R. L. Allen and the Canadian Committee on Seals and Sealing (COSS) recommend a 5-year phase out. They estimated the maximum sustainable yield at 91,000 pelts per year, but this was not implemented. The annual quota from 1973-1975 remained at 150,000, cut to 127,000 in 1976. Dr. D.M. Lavigne at the University of Guelph said, "the Harp seal cannot sustain present levels of exploitation” and recommended that Canada “abolish all harp seal hunting, except perhaps the aboriginal summer hunt."

The population had been reduced to 1.5 million, 5% of the peak herd. The International Fund for Animal Welfare and Fund for Animals protested the hunt. Greenpeace embraced the issue in 1976, and the ensuing media frenzy had an enormous impact worldwide. In 1983 the European Union banned the importation of harp seal pelts, the average Harp seal kill dropped to 40,000 pelts per year, and the herd recovered to approximately its 1950 level, 3.5 million, 10% of its peak.

The New Seal Hunt

In 1996, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans revived the hunt. From 1996 to 2002 the annual average landing grew to 250,00 pelts per year, when DFO announced their dramatic plan to kill 975,000 seals in three years. Insiders in Ottawa claim pressure existed to kept this below 1-million for public relations purposes.

Thus, we have returned to the state of affairs in the 1950s. The herd has recovered to its 1950 level of 3 to 5 million animals, and the quotas have returned to the 1951 levels. The DFO claims the quotas are sustainable, but similar quotas were clearly not sustainable in the 1950s, and the DFO has hedged, stating “some reduction in the population is possible at this time while maintaining the principle of sustainable use of this natural resource.”

That’s like punching someone in the nose while maintaining the principle of nonviolence. The DFO has stated that they would not stop the hunt until the population fell below 1.65 million seals. That is, the DFO is fully prepared to recreate the 1950-72 crash and reduce the herd to 1,650,000 individuals, back to 5% of peak level.

Furthermore, the landed pelt figures do not account seals shot and not recovered, pelts sold on side markets for cash, seals crushed under ships, or pelts simply not declared. Actual enforcement has traditionally been nonexistent, and reports are based on the sealing company statements. The claim that the harvest is “sustainable” is bogus. It is not.

Seals and fish

Sealing nations such as the UK, Norway, and Canada have repeatedly claimed that to maintain commercial fishing populations they must cull seal herds.

This deception betrays scant understanding of marine ecology. For several millennia to the 18th century, some 30 million Harp seals lived in a North Atlantic teeming with cod, capelin, herring, and so forth. If 30 million seals did not deplete the fish stocks, it is inconceivable that 3 million seals will deplete the fish stocks.

Unsustainable harvesting by humans has caused the decline of fish and seal populations. At the peak of the seal hunt, in the 1830s, hunters killed 700,000 Harp seals per year, devastating the herds. Poor fisheries management led to the depletion of the cod throughout the North Atlantic. Adult harp seals grow to 300 pounds and require about 3 kilograms of fish per day. They feed on herring, capelin, cod, bottom dwelling plaice and halibut, other fish, and crustacea, including mysids, amphipods and shrimps.

However, and this is the key point to grok, when fish eat fish, or when seals eat fish, the nutrients remain in the ocean. They are recycled. When humans remove fish from the ocean, the nutrients are removed. Fisheries scientists generally ignore this fact. Seals and fish clearly coexisted for millennia. Embarrassed fisheries officers have simply used seals as a scapegoat for poor management.

Killing in the nursery

Traditionally, hunters targeted the 3-15-day-old whitecoat pups. The Greenpeace campaign of the 1970s, resulting in the European ban, put an end to this. Although the Canadian government has now outlawed the killing of whitecoat pups, all other infant seals are free game under the law. The young infants still possess the most valuable pelts for the fashion industry. The DFO allows hunters to kill any seal pup over two-weeks-old, the so-called “raggedy jackets,” and "beaters" sporting a silvery coat flecked with small dark spots. Although a few adult seals are taken, some 90-95% of all the Harp seals taken are still infants, 2-6 weeks old. Killing babies in their nursery feels morally reprehensible, and ecologically dim-witted.

Many environmental advocates believe killing infant animals in their nursery is fundamentally wrong, not particularly radical point of view. I have witnessed mother seals wailing over the bloody carcasses of their dead babies, and I would attest that once one has witnessed this, the taste for accepting the practice diminishes.

The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs claims, “Canada does prohibit the commercial hunt of seal pups.” This is not true. A two-week old beater is a seal pup. The DFO statement appears to be designed to fool the public into believing that infant seals are not killed, which they certainly are. Waiting two weeks to kill the infants once the whitecoats have molted is a public relations gesture, not ecological science.

Hunt is government subsidized

The landed value of the Canadian Harp seal hunt is worth between $5-21 million. In the most favorable recent year of good market conditions, 2002, the landed value reached $21 million. The landed value in 2001 was $5.5 million, and last year, 2004, $16 million. Keep in mind that this gross landed value is highly subsidized. The actual net value in poor years may be zero. For political and bureaucratic reasons, the Canadian government directly subsidizes the Harp seal hunt for about $3-4 million annually, including capital costs, infrastructure, subsidized salaries, and other services.

Unaccounted subsidies include international promotion, regulation, enforcement, disrupting protests, DFO scientific studies, and so forth. The total of these subsidies remains unknown, buried in other budgets, but the industry is subsidized in Canada by $5-10 million annually, more than the gross value in some years.

The net value, therefore, fluctuates between zero and $10-million annually, a fair little business, but smaller than many single retail establishments. By way of comparison, this is less than one-tenth of one percent of the B.C. underground market in marijuana.

Locally, the seal hunt has meaning for the Newfoundland, Quebec, and Indigenous people. If the landsmen and indigenous hunters retained their right to hunt adult seals, this would have almost no appreciable impact on the seal populations. Few, if any, of the protesters have spoken out against a local, indigenous, shore-based seal hunt. The Canadian government, however, uses cultural issues to attract political support and mislead the international community.

Culturally sensitive?

Every ecological issue on the planet is linked to jobs and economy. Failing to make informed ecological decisions simply because some constituency is making money from the status quo is not science. If that were true, we’d have no argument against the mafia or pimps. Making smart ecological decisions is always going to impact economy.

Although the DFO claims the hunt is part of Canada's culture, it remains simply a commercial harvest for an international fashion industry. The pelts go to the world fur markets, seal penises to the Asian aphrodisiac markets, and some seal oil and meat are consumed locally. To claim to be looking after indigenous cultures with a massive commercial seal hunt is a pretense. Never mind that Canadians decimated the indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland. Economic and cultural arguments do not appear to remotely justify the clubbing and skinning of infant seals in their nursery on the Labrador ice floes, and the attendant disgrace of Canada worldwide.

Vancouver journalist Rex Weyler is the author of Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World (Raincoast Books, September 2004). Weyler sailed on the first Greenpeace whale campaign in 1975, edited the Greenpeace Chronicles newspaper, and co-founded Greenpeace International in 1979. He is currently a director of Greenpeace International Marine Services.  [Tyee]

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