Canada Seeks to Make Seal Hunt More Human

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, March 11, 2002 (ENS) - Canadian sealers will have to ensure the seals they skin are indeed dead before their pelts are removed, according to changes to the Marine Mammal Regulations proposed by the Canadian government.

This and other new rules are intended to enhance conservation, improve management and ensure that the annual springtime hunt of 275,000 Northwest Atlantic harp seals is conducted in a more humane manner, fisheries officials said.


Whitecoat seal pup on the Newfoundland ice. (Photos courtesy IFAW)
Releasing the changes for public comment last week, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said they were developed in consultation with over 80 organizations. Aboriginal groups participated in rewriting the rules as did representatives of the commercial seal industry, scientists, academics, provincial and federal officials, conservation and animal rights groups and veterinarians.

The proposed changes include amendments to hunting methods to establish a clearer determination of death before bleeding and skinning, which is meant to ensure that all animals are checked quickly for death after they are shot or clubbed, as suggested by veterinarians.

"Veterinarians accept that animals will be used by humans, but as a profession, we work to ensure that they will be treated humanely and when death is necessary, that it be executed in a quick and painless manner. The seals that are taken in Canada's commercial hunt are not being killed humanely," said Dr. Mary Richardson, former chair of the Animal Care Review Board for the Solicitor-General of Ontario. She was speaking for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at a 1998 federal government investigation into seal hunting.


Sealer at work using a hakapik
For sealers using hakapiks or clubs, the rule changes introduce a requirement that sealers manually check the skull or administer a blinking reflex test prior to bleeding and skinning the carcass. The blinking reflex consists of checking the corneal reflex by hitting the seal in the eyes to ensure that the animal is dead. Sealers using firearms would also be required to administer a blinking reflex test before skinning or bleeding the carcass.

The rule changes include extension of the application of existing gear restrictions to commercial sealing throughout Atlantic Canada. This provision is intended to prevent the use of nets for any commercial sealing and would ensure a consistent standard.

A new requirement has been added so that sealers must land either the pelt or carcass of seals taken by commercial or personal use sealers. This rule makes it illegal to harvest a seal for only smaller parts, such as organs.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada would establish a new set of licences and licence prerequisites to allow the killing of "nuisance seals, where there is a danger to property and other efforts have failed or where they are inflicting great damage on migrating fish stocks."

Separate licences for commercial and personal use sealing would be established, which would allow for distinct seasons and closures based on having reached the established allocation among the various users.


Sealing vessel picks up seal carcasses
To prevent large vessels being used as seal hunting platforms, the current policy does not permit sealing from vessels over 65 feet in length. A new licencing process would be established for vessels greater than 65 feet to collect seals from other vessels, which sealers can use as a possible safe haven during bad weather.

IFAW supports efforts to revise sealing regulations, but says that "though many sealers may be well intentioned, the unpredictable weather and ice conditions, combined with the difficulties inherent in killing a large number of wild animals very quickly, results in unacceptable levels of inhumane conduct."

Tina Fagan, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, told the St. John's "Telegram" that sealers generally support the proposed amendments. Sealers maintain the hunt is sustainable and cite population estimates of 4.8 million harp seals as evidence that the annual quota of 275,000 seals does not deplete the population.

A requirement to land both the pelt and the meat was considered, but the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says analysis showed that it would be impracticable in some areas where meat processors are not close at hand and meat could become contaminated during transport.

Stakeholders discussed prohibiting the landing of seal organs to curb the trade of seal penises to Chinese markets where this seal part is marketed as an aphrodisiac. But "this would have resulted in the waste of valuable seal by-products from older seals, and could actually result in a large black market with increased market prices and greater impetus for violations," the fisheries agency said.


Dead seal on the Newfoundland ice
The CSA says seal penises are not the lucrative item they once were. In 1996, the total processed value of the harvest was approximately $9 million, a little over 10 percent of which was seal organs. Pelts accounted for $5.7 million. "The Asian market for penises no longer offers high prices of $70 to $100 per unit as it once did. In 1997, the price was about $25 per unit, the association said.

The proposed changes do not apply to Aboriginal fishing for food, social or ceremonial purposes, and no licence is required for these activities.

DFO will participate in joint patrols with the RCMP and the Quebec Police. The fisheries agency said, "This assistance could be important in avoiding potential confrontations between sealers and members of anti-sealing groups," which have gotten ugly in the past.

Offenders may be fined an amount not exceeding C$500,000, be imprisoned for not more than 24 months, or both.

Canadians have until April 1 to comment on the proposed changes. Comments must cite the Canada Gazette, Part I, March 2, 2002, and be addressed to Grace Mellano, Resource Management - Atlantic, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 200 Kent Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E6 Tel: 613-990-0128; Fax: 613-990-7051.