Sealers Block Environmental Observers From Reaching Seal Hunt

BLANC-SABLON, Quebec, Canada, April 13, 2006 (ENS) - About 60 sealers and fishermen in Blanc-Sablon today prevented a seal hunt observation team from two environmental groups, with a member of the European Parliament and several independent journalists, from observing the seal hunt by keeping them under seige in their hotel. Others in a Labrador town were able to keep a helicopter filled with anti-sealing activists from landing.

Hunt observers from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Franz Weber Foundation along with MEP Carl Schlyter of Sweden and the journalists said today that they were "under threat of physical violence" and had "taken refuge in their rooms" at the Four Seasons Inn in Blanc-Sablon.

The angry sealers gathered outside the hotel and refused to let the group leave for the ice, where they intended to film the seal hunt.

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Crowd of sealers, fishermen and cameramen surround the environmentalists at the Four Seasons Inn in Blanc-Sablon. (Photo courtesy HSUS)
Earlier this morning, while attempting to drive to their helicopters, a car containing some of the environmentalists and four journalists was run off the road into a ditch. The vehicle sustained damage but there were no injuries.

HSUS officials have placed calls to the American State Department, the American Embassy and the local police. Two police officers attended the inn but did not disperse the sealers.

"We are appalled by these violent tactics used by the local citizens in an attempt to prevent our team from documenting the cruelty of the seal hunt," said Dr. John Grandy, HSUS senior vice president. "Our team is there as peaceful observers and they should not have to fear for their safety."

"This is the second incident where the team has been physically placed in danger," said Grandy. "The first time was during the Gulf hunt when their boat was rammed by a sealing vessel."

Canada's commercial seal hunt has two phases, the hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which begins in late March, and the largest part of the annual hunt, which opens several weeks later on the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, known as the Front.

Blanc-Sablon is near the border with Labrador and close to areas where the Front hunt opened Wednesday.

"We cannot understand why the Canadian government is allowing these people to break the law and endanger lives but revoking our team members' permits and infringing on their rights," Grandy said. "This is a terrible injustice and Canada should be ashamed."

"After all, the tragedy here is the cruel slaughter of the seals and having sealers try to hide it from the world only compounds the grievous wrongs," Grandy said.

"What has happened out here has crossed a line," said Rebecca Aldworth, a Newfoundland native now based in Montreal, who works with the HSUS to document the seal hunt.

"Of course they have a right to protest, and I respect that," Aldworth said. "But when you put human lives at risk and prevent people from engaging in lawful activities, you've crossed the line into assault and reckless endangerment. That is not legal in this country and this is still Canada."

But provincial politician said hunt supporters did not threaten or harm the environmentalists. Instead, she said, the environmentalists nearly killed a sealer.

"These individuals who decided to take a van and go to the airport actually plowed through a group of the protesters to get out of there," Yvonne Jones, a Liberal who represents the southern Labrador district of Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair in the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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Yvonne Jones, MHA for Cartwright - L’Anse au Clair serves as opposition critic for health and community services, status of women and Labrador affairs. (Photo courtesy Office of the Member)
"One young fellow, whom I actually talked to myself, ended up on the hood of this vehicle and was driven on the hood of the vehicle for several kilometers before the animal-rights activists stopped to let him off," said Jones, who served as Minister of Fisheries & Aquaculture for Newfoundland and Labrador for several years until October 2003.

The environmentalists left Quebec this evening. Tracy McIntire, an HSUS spokesperson based in Washington, DC, said pressure from the American Embassy brought the police to escort them to the airport and they are heading back to Newfoundland.

Also on Thursday, about 25 residents of Cartwright on the central coast of Labrador twice prevented a helicopter carrying environmentalists from refueling. Police stepped in, allowing the helicopter to land at an airstrip and refuel.

On Wednesday, several dozen people in Cartwright temporarily blocked two helicopters from observing the hunt. About 60 people from Cartwright now are out sealing.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is flying over the Front hunt, monitoring and documenting the sealers' actions.

IFAW says the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has allowed the Gulf of St. Lawrence sealers to go nearly 20 percent over their DFO quota.

For 2006, the Gulf hunt quota was 92,343 seals. DFO announced Wednesday that sealers have so far killed 108,653 seals - 16,310 seals over the quota.

There is no penalty for going over the quota and DFO officials did not adjust today's hunt quota to reflect the overrun.

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A sealer lifts his club, called a hakapik, to kill a harp seal, as Canadian sealers have done for generations. (Photo courtesy Respect for Animals)
"This cruel and unnecessary hunt is a mismanaged mess," said Olivier Bonnet, IFAW's Canadian director. "DFO is utterly incapable of effectively regulating and managing this slaughter. Repeatedly sealers take more than the quota and DFO lets it happen. Combined with the extreme cruelty we witness every year and raging negative publicity for Canada, the time has come to finally end the seal hunt and move on."

The quota for the Front hunt is 232,657 seals. Most of this hunt begins by being open for one day, and then DFO assesses whether it will re-open. "The Front hunt is an extremely competitive, reckless environment that is known to be extremely difficult to regulate and monitor by authorities," Bonnet said.

The overall seal hunt quota in Atlantic Canada for 2006 is 325,000 seals. The DFO says the harp seal herd now consists of about 5.8 million animals.

Regina Flores, IFAW's seals campaigner said, "As IFAW, our role is to show the world that this is happening and encourage everyone to pressure the Canadian government to end it once and for all."

Several environmental groups are attempting to end the hunt with a boycott of travel to Canada.

From Darien, Connecticut, Friends of Animals announced an international tourist boycott today.

Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral said, "We ask people everywhere to avoid travel to Canada until its government stops this miserable seal slaughter. The government sets the kill quotas. Government funds assist the kill. These resources must be redirected to build a real economic foundation for Canada’s coastal residents."

"Don’t wait for the Olympics," said Feral, referring to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games scheduled for Vancouver, British Columbia on Canada's Pacific Coast. "Stay away and end this now."

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A Canadian sealer skins a seal he has killed offshore Cape Breton, March 2006. (Photo courtesy Respect for Animals)
The Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment reports that over $20 million in Canadian federal dollars supported seal processing between 1995 and 2001. The funds also maintain plants, cover ice-breaking support, and sustain research and marketing for seal products.

The sealers and the DFO maintain that seal hunting is an important source of income for sealing communities. In 2005, The average price per pelt received by sealers was approximately C$52, an 18 percent increase over the 2004 average value, according to DFO figures. The landed value of the 2005 harp seal hunt was close to C$16.5 million, the DFO says.

The boycott aims to hurt Canada in the wallet to pressure the country to end the seal hunt. It will target on Canada’s top visitor markets - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia, says Friends of Animals. As hundreds of thousands work in the travel sector, the boycott will impact the Canadian people, who, Feral says, "must be moved" to hold their own government accountable.

Other groups such as Respect for Animals, a UK charity, also support a boycott.

Once the seal killing ends, Feral says the group will support ecologically sound travel to Canada.

"Seal watching and ecotours, launched in the 1980s through businesses such as Habitat Adventures and Travel Wild Expeditions, are a much better bet to address the province’s 15 percent jobless rate," said Feral. "That was proven when the whale-killing communities adjusted their economy. We have and will support careful, prudent ecotourism."

National bans on Canadian seal products are in place in the United States, Mexico, Greenland and a number of European countries.