The amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations, which include strengthened federal enforcement, come just over a month after newly appointed federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said Canada is "going straight ahead for the 2009 hunt. We're proceeding as usual."
A spokesman for Shea called the new regulations "tweaks."
"Certainly these tweaks are in keeping with what independent veterinarians have been telling us to make sure the hunt is as humane as it can possibly be at all times," said Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesman Phil Jenkins.
"No person shall use a club or a hakapik to strike a seal older than one year unless the seal has been shot with a firearm," states one of the new rules, posted Saturday in a government publication but not on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.
Seal hunter wields a hakapik. March 29, 2008. (Photo by Nigel Barker courtesy HSUS)
In the past three years, the total allowable seal catch has ranged between 270,000 and 335,000 seals annually. It is the largest marine mammal hunt in the world.
Under the new rules, the existing "blink test," used to check whether seals are unconscious before skinning is being eliminated because it is unreliable. The sealers must now feel the seal's cranium to make sure it is broken. Sealers must bleed the animals for 60 seconds before skinning.
The regulations acknowledge that this will increase costs to sealers by "reducing the speed of the harvest." The new rules could be enforced by officers using helicopter-mounted surveillance cameras.
Yet, it is still legal to shoot seals in the water, where none of the new rules can be followed.
The policy shift will "help maintain Canada's international reputation as a country that sustains a "humane hunt," according to an analysis by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that goes with the new rules.
The Canadian government is facing a proposed European Union trade ban "to ensure that products derived from seals killed and skinned in ways that cause pain, distress and suffering are not found on the European market."
Trade in seal products would only be allowed "where guarantees can be provided that hunting techniques consistent with high animal-welfare standards were used and that the animals did not suffer unnecessarily," said the European Commission, the EU's executive branch.
Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said in July, "We propose a ban on the placing on the market and importing into EU, transiting through, and exporting from the European Union on seal products. Seal products coming from countries which practice cruel hunting methods must not be allowed to enter the EU. The EU is committed to upholding high standards of animal welfare."
"Seals are sentient mammals which can experience pain," said Dimas. "The Commission proposal seeks to address the concerns expressed by the European Parliament and the general public that seals are being killed and skinned using practices that unnecessarily inflict pain and suffering," which could include bludgeoning seals with a hakapik.
European Food Safety Authority scientific opinion indicates that seals can be killed rapidly and effectively by a number of methods without causing avoidable pain, distress and suffering, but evidence shows that effective killing does not always happen in practice, the commissioner said.
The European Union could stop all imports of seal products as early as March 2009, just as Canada's annual seal hunt gets underway.
If the EU import ban is enacted, the Canadian government estimates it would halve the $13 million annual value of the seal hunt to some 6,000 Canadian sealers.
The seal fur is sold to high-end retailers. Some of the penises are sold as aphrodisiacs in Asia, and the oil is sold as a health supplement. The blubber is sometimes collected, but a 2006 study by Memorial University discovered that 80 percent of it is discarded.
The Canadian government is now promoting harp seal heart valves as "superior to those currently used in human heart valve transplants. It is thought that demand could be as high as 300,000 valves per year, at a cost of roughly C$5,000 (€3,400) each," the DFO says on its website.
So, an EU trade ban due to animal welfare concerns could cripple the sealing industry.
Opposition is not coming only from Europe, some Canadian premiers, too, are uneasy about the way the annual seal hunt is conducted, although for different reasons.
This image of a seal hunter raising his hakapik has been widely published by animal welfare and conservation groups seeking to end the seal hunt. (Photo by Dave Ward Photography)
On April 15, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams told the provincial House that he and Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik had jointly called on the Government of Canada to "ban the use of the hakapik as part of the annual Canadian seal harvest."
The two premiers came to their decision after their government representatives participated in a sealing industry advocacy mission to Europe this spring led by the federal government.
"I am advised, that within each country the use of the hakapik was a dominant issue and continues to be viewed in an extremely negative manner," said Williams. "These are the very countries that are in the process of deciding whether or not to ban the importation of seal products from Canada."
"In reality, the hakapik is only used by five percent of sealers in our province," said Williams. "Anti-sealing groups have been clear and consistent in using the image of the hakapik as a means to advance their cause."
"Our governments are saying that we should no longer tolerate this as a country by putting those who oppose our way of life in a position to depict us as inhumane."
Premier Willimas said, "Our hunt is sustainable and humane and that should continue to be the focus of our message."
However, the latest amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations do not ban the use of the hakapik.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.