Canadian Sealers Take to the Newfoundland Ice Floes

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland, April 13, 2004 (ENS) - The world's largest seal hunt officially opened Monday as some 12,000 sealers hit the ice with a bigger kill quota allowed than in past years. But in fact, the hunt has been going on since March 25 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has opened the hunt to 350,000 harp seals this year, saying that the total harp seal population, at 5.2 million seals, is strong enough to withstand the hunt without ill effects.

The Canadian Sealers Association says that the harp seal population is healthy and abundant and has nearly tripled in size in 35 years. By comparison, it was 1.8 million in 1970. Sealers need the money, the association says, and each seal pelt is selling for a top price of C$65.

But the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which is monitoring the hunt from the air and on the ice, says the annual event is cruel.

In the last five years alone, IFAW has submitted video evidence of more than 660 probable violations of Canada’s marine mammal regulations to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. To date, no charges have been placed.


Seal hunter wields his hakapik, a hooked club. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
These abuses include skinning live seals, dragging live seals across the ice with hooks and shooting seals and leaving them to suffer, the animal welfare organization says. But in March Canadian authorities contacted the group to say they would not be pressing charges.

But few environmental organizations are going to the ice to protest this year. Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society whoc has often demonstrated against the hunt, spraying seals green to make their pelts commercially worthless in 1979, will not be there, although he is making is views known by gathering celebrity support.

"In our modern media culture, celebrities have a great influence on society and politics," said Watson. "We did not make these rules - the media did. But it is important that we take advantage of this reality and the more celebrities speak out against the slaughter of wildlife on this planet, the better it will be for these persecuted creatures."

Many celebrities have spoken out against the hunt this year. Richard Dean Anderson, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Penn, Christian Bale, Rutger Hauer, Linda Blair, James Cromwell and Martin Sheen have joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society campaign to oppose the seal hunt.

Sheen taped public service announcements condemning the hunt for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Greenpeace Canada is not going to the ice and does not feature a seal hunt protest on the front page of its website, which instead is devoted to forests, genetically engineered food and the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The Humane Society of the United States, despite a newspaper ad it ran earlier this month protesting the hunt, will not send representatives to the ice and does not feature a seal hunt protest on its website either.

The ad brought an annoyed response from Canadian Minister of Natural Resources John Efford, who said protest groups are spreading false information and trying to harm the welfare of Newfoundlanders. The Humane Society ad was wrong to claim the hunt allows the killing of "baby seals," Efford fumed.

"O Canada. How Could you ... Again?" says the ad, adding that Canada "still permits the clubbing of baby seals."

But in fact the hunting of harp seal pups and hooded seal pups was prohibited 25 years ago after protest groups embarrassed the Canadian government with charges of cruelty. Now seals are considered fair game after they are weaned from their mothers 12 days after birth.

Canadian seal pelts are sold into China, Denmark and Norway, and the industry brought in C$15 million in 2003. Canada exports seal oil and canned seal meat as well.

Each year the hunt takes place in the spring when harp and hooded seals migrate to the east coast of Canada to give birth to their pups. The sealers, hungry from a long winter's unemployment can get angry when protesters interfere with their livlihood.


Aerial view of blood on the ice and discarded skinned seal carcasses left by Canadian sealers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, March 2004. (Photo by S. Cook courtesy IFAW)
Rebecca Aldworth, IFAW Seal Team Protest Leader wrote in her field notes from March 25, "Yesterday, our camera crew was attacked. Sealers tried to hit our cameraman with a snowmobile, and shoved our photographer to the ground. Everyone was okay, but a camera was damaged in the incident."

Aldworth calls the sealers "brutal," and says some of her volunteers come off the ice with "tears in their eyes."

"One picks up a live baby seal and throws it hard onto the ice," she writes. "He straddles it and clubs it ineffectively from that position. Leaving the seal writhing around on the ice, he pursues another."

But the Canadian government's official position is accepting of the slaughter. "The killing of any animals, whether they are domesticated or wild, is never pleasant to watch," the Department of Fisheries and Oceans states. "Society makes use of many different animals for food and clothing. In this sense, the harvesting of harp and hooded seals is not fundamentally different from the exploitation of livestock."

Seal hunting methods have been studied and aproved by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing. The Commission found that the methods used in hunting seals compare favorable to those used to hunt any other wild or domestic animal. These methods are designed to kill the animal quickly.

A recent report published by the "Canadian Veterinary Journal" concluded 98 percent of harp seals are killed in what veterinarians describe as an acceptably humane manner.

But IFAW's Sherri Cox, country director for Canada, writes in her field notes of March 25, "There is nothing that can truly prepare you for the brutality and violence that is inflicted on these gentle creatures."