Annual Canadian Seal Hunt Bloody and Divisive

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, March 17, 2005 (ENS) - About 50 conservation and animal rights activists opposed to the annual Canadian harp seal hunt demonstrated outside the constituency offices of the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Halifax on Wednesday. The action was part of the International Day of Protest against the slaughter of seals off Canada's east coast that activists call "cruel and barbaric." Staff closed the office for the day because of the protest.

About 400 representatives from a range of groups assembled outside federal offices in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. They called for an end to what they say is the world's largest slaughter of marine mammals.

Geoff Regan, the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, issued a statement today defending the seal hunt, which has been postponed a week to March 29 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and to April 12 off the coast of Newfoundland.

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Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Geoff Regan, a Liberal, represents the riding of Halifax West. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
Calling the annual seal hunt "a legitimate, sustainable activity based on sound conservation principles," Regan said, "this industry and its importance to thousands of Canadians are often misunderstood and clouded by misleading rhetoric and sensational images that tell a selective, biased, and often false story about the seal hunt."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has announced a quota of 325,000 seals that hunters may kill this year, a quota parallels that of the past two years. In 2003, a three year quota of 975,000 harp seals was announced.

Regan cast the conflict in terms of "proud coastal communities that rely on the seal hunt for their very survival" in "remote towns and villages where few other economic opportunities exist" as against "a few extremely powerful and well-funded organizations."

The organizations opposing the seal hunt include the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, headed by Captain Paul Watson, who has sailed in opposition to the hunt since 1979.

Greenpeace International is also a longstanding opponent of the seal hunt as is the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Both organizations have protested the hunt on the ice floes of eastern Canada since the 1970s.

Mhairi Dunlop of Greenpeace International says the hunt should not continue. "It is irresponsible and scientifically unjustifiable of the Canadian government to allow the killing of nearly a million seals [over three years] when their own scientists are unable to accurately substantiate the size of the herd, the actual number of seals taken in the hunt or the impact of external pressures like climate change on the health of the population."

Fisheries Minister Regan cites current estimates that put the harp seal herd "in excess of five million animals, nearly triple what it was in the 1970s."

Greenpeace points out that Canadian scientists only count the harp seal population every five years, so any declines in population based on new birth counts could take up to 15 years or longer to be detected and verified.

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A Canadian seal hunter wields his club. (Photo by S. Cook courtesy IFAW)
The methods used by Canada to monitor the hunt quotas fail to count seals that are wounded but escape to die later, seals killed by illegal hunting and those that are killed for their organs and then discarded, Greenpeace says.

Future estimates of the harp seal population do not consider facotrs such as climate change, that could adversely affect the seal population, Greenpeace says. "Changes in sea-ice can have a profound impact on the feeding and breeding habits of seals."

Dunlop says, "The Canadian government has a long history of mismanaging marine ecosystems, yielding to the short-term interests of the fishing and sealing industries at great cost to jobs and marine life."

Regan maintains that the seal hunt is conducted "in a humane and tightly regulated manner, and that Canada’s seal population is "healthy and abundant."

"My department has strict conservation measures in place, and is committed to the careful management of all seals to ensure strong, healthy populations in the years to come," Regan said today.

"The seals hunted are self-reliant, independent animals that must already have molted their white coat before being hunted. They are no longer part of a family unit. Hunting for harp (whitecoat) and hooded (blueback) seal pups is strictly prohibited, as is the trade, sale or barter of the fur of these pups," the minister said.

Regan says that to prevent inhumane treatment, seals are killed quickly and according to strict regulations.

"Canada’s seal-hunting methods have been studied and approved by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing, which found that the methods used in the seal hunt compare favorably to those used to hunt other wild animals, and those used to slaughter domestic animals - like cattle and poultry - for human consumption," said the minister.

In 2002, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association issued a Special Report on Animal Welfare and the Harp Seal Hunt in Atlantic Canada, which concluded that virtually all harp seals - fully 98 percent - are killed in a humane manner.

But the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said March 8 that, "The international community, including over two million IFAW supporters is appalled by the cruelty of Cananda’s hunt for baby seals."

Early in the season, IFAW explains, younger seals are usually killed on the ice with clubs or hakapiks. Later in the season, beaters and older seals are usually shot with a rifle, both on the ice and in the water.

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IFAW anti-seal hunt campaigner Rebecca Aldworth, a Newfoundland native, bears witness to the killing. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
"Seal pups have traditionally been clubbed to death, but in recent years thinning ice has led to increased shooting on ice and in open water. When clubbing, sealers may only stun a pup, resulting in the skinning or bleeding of a live seal. Shooting also causes significant suffering," IFAW said.

IFAW quotes The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing as saying that it is extremely difficult to guarantee a clean kill when shooting at seals in the water or on moving ice floes. Seals are often wounded and escape to die under the ice. These "uncounted kills" are not included in government catch statistics.

Humane Society International’s (HSI) Wildlife and Habitats Program Manager Nicola Beynon said, "Each year, hundreds of thousands of baby seals are clubbed and shot to death, and many are even skinned alive. A panel of international veterinarians who studied the commercial seal hunt concluded up to 42 percent of seals were likely skinned alive while conscious."

HSI’s affiliate, the Humane Society of the United States will be on the ice floes documenting the kiling on film.

As soon as the first baby seal is killed, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will call on its 8.5 million members to boycott Canadian seafood. The HSUS is the largest animal protection organization in the United States, where Canadian seafood exports amount to US$3 billion a year. Australia is also an important market for Canadian seafood and HSI says its thousands of supporters in Australia will be asked to join the boycott.

As for the Canadian government claim that the harp seal herd has tripled in size since 1970, IFAW points out that between 1950 and 1970, "excessive and uncontrolled hunting had reduced the population as much as 66 percent."

The 1970 population size was not considered to be healthy by anyone's estimates, which is one of the reasons why the existing quota management was introduced. This, combined with reduced markets for seal products since the 1980s, have helped the seal herd to recover to healthy levels, IFAW says.

Every year for the past 36 years, IFAW has documented the seal hunt, and intends to do so again this year, as do other conservation organizations.

But Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society says the Canadian government postponed this year's seal hunt in an attempt to make life difficult for conservationists. The group's ship the Farley Mowat is in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, hampered by a break in its hull.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans "has made this move to disrupt plans by conservation and humane organizations to film and photograph the annual kill. Groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the International Fund for Animal Welfare had booked helicopters out of Charlottetown to reach the hunt. They will now have to rebook and reorganize to reach the sealers from another location. The ice floes are moving northward away from the Magdalen Islands," Watson said.

“I believe that the delay in the start of the seal killing has come about because of the increase in protest activity," said Watson.

"The government is also trying to spin the hunt as a hunt for adult seals and not pups. This later date will ensure that white-coated seal pups are not killed. However, a four-week old baby seal is not an adult and this still remains a slaughter of harp seal pups,” he said.