Few Pups Seen on Opening Day of Canada's Seal Hunt

CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island, Canada, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - Climate change has turned the ice in Canada's Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence to slush weeks earlier than usual, so few young seals were to be seen as the annual Canadian harp seal hunt opened today. Mother seals could not climb onto solid ice to give birth and so were forced to give birth at sea, where thousands of pups have drowned.

Even if they did survive their birth, newborn seals cannot swim in their first few weeks of life and need a foothold of solid ice, so thousands more pups perished in the icy slush.

Conservationists pleaded with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, DFO, to call a halt to this year's seal hunt, but despite concern expressed about the softening ice, the hunt opened on schedule today.

The 2007 harp seal total allowable catch has been set at 270,000, Loyola Hearn, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, announced on Saturday. That is down from the 2006 quota of 325,000, and about the same as the quota set from 1997 to 2002.

Minister of Fisheries Loyola Hearn is a member of Parliament who represents Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
"Although ice conditions have deteriorated in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence this spring," said Hearn, "conditions remain good where the majority of seals are located, which is in the Northern Gulf and on the Front, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador."

The seal hunt in the northern Gulf begins on Wednesday, and the DFO has yet to announce a date for the start of the hunt on Labrador Front.

"We've noticed that the ice over the past four or five years has been deteriorating and this year it's giving us some concern," said DFO spokesman Phil Jenkins. "We're seeing poor ice conditions. So, we can expect a higher than average mortality of seal pups."

The Canadian government refused to issue any observation permits to international journalists, scientists, and observers for the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence hunt.

"Canada's cruel baby seal slaughter started this morning and, for the first time in nine years, I have been denied access to the opening day of the hunt," said Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian wildlife issues for the Humane Society of the United States. Aldworth grew up in Newfoundland and has been a longtime observer of the Canadian seal hunt.

Observers with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, traveled by plane and helicopter and observed a single sealing vessel as it began hunting seals on the opening day of the Gulf hunt.

They said sealers were shooting at seals on small ice pans from their boat. "What we saw today was the cruelty of shooting seals in open water," said Sheryl Fink, observer and senior researcher with IFAW. "A recent veterinary panel recommended banning the practice of shooting seals in open water, and today we saw why."

"Seals were seen in agony after being shot at and injured, but not instantly killed. One seal was hauled alive onto the deck of the boat with a steel hook before finally being beaten to death," Fink said.

"The conditions this year are disastrous," said Fink. "I've surveyed this region for six years and I haven't seen anything like this. "There is wide open water and almost no seals. I only saw a handful of adult harp seals and even fewer pups, where normally we should be seeing thousands and thousands of seals."


Seal swims through icy slush in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (Photo courtesy IFAW)
"Even Canadian government scientists are estimating up to 100 percent of the pups born in the southern Gulf died because of the lack of ice," said Aldworth. "It is reprehensible that the Canadian government would allow sealers to kill the few surviving pups."

"These decisions are guided by principles of conservation," said Minister Hearn, who says the Atlantic harp seal population is plentiful - nearly triple what it was in the 1970s. The current Canadian government estimate of harp seals is about 5.5 million animals.

"I also want to ensure that the people who depend on this resource for their livelihood will benefit from it over the long-term," said Hearn, defending the catch quota of 270,000. "This year's decision takes into account the poor ice conditions we've seen in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence."

Conservationists are not alone in raising their voices against Canada's commercial seal hunt - the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world.

In the U.S. Senate on March 21, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, introduced a resolution that urges the government of Canada to end what the senator called "this senseless and inhumane slaughter."

"It makes little sense to continue this inhumane industry that employs only a few hundred people on a seasonal, part-time basis and only operates for a few weeks a year, in which the concentrated killings takes place," Senator Levin told his colleagues. "In Newfoundland, where over 90 percent of the hunters live, the economic contribution of the seal hunt is marginal. In fact, exports of seal products from Newfoundland account for less than one-tenth of one percent of the province's total exports."

He was joined in submitting the anti-seal hunt resolution by Senator Joseph Biden, a Maryland Democrat, and Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

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.

Journalist Jim Winter, who is also the founding president of the Canadian Sealers' Association, defends the annual seal hunt and attacks animal conservation groups.

"It's now four decades since animal rights groups started their anti-sealing campaigns in Canada that have raised for them hundreds of million of dollars," Winter writes on the Canadian Sealers Association website. "During this time Canadian sealers have taken their yearly quotas while more than doubling the population of the harp seal herd to over five million animals."

He argues that sealing is not a conservation issue because harp seals are not a threatened or endangered species.


Canadian sealer hooks a harp seal today amidst melting ice pans. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
"The killing - while not pretty - is simply an outdoor abattoir and it is as efficient and as humane as any abattoir in the western world," Winter writes.

He says the sealers need income from the annual hunt to survive. "Canadian sealers are rural people earning a living from the sea," he writes. "Like all rural peoples - whether fishermen or farmers - they do not have salaries."

"Sealers use as much of the animal as possible to produce a range of products. They range from food and clothing to medicines, artisan art and souvenirs. The animals sealers kill have the skin, fat, flippers [meat] and some carcasses prepared and stored on the boat," writes Winter.

"Remaining parts of the carcass are left on the ice, which melts to return the remains to the sea where it becomes food for fish and crustaceans. This avoids the land-based abattoir problem of disposing of offal produced by animal slaughter. What could be more 'green'? What could be more ecofriendly?"

But Winter does not address the issue of climate change, the miles of open water instead of solid ice, the thousands of pups drowned.

Conservationists believe that deteriorating ice conditions may make a continuation of the seal hunt impossible. "There are so few pups left," said IFAW's Fink, "and here the sealers were wiping out the last few survivors."