Canadian Sealers Hunt Animals, Officials Hunt Conservationists

CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island, Canada, March 29, 2005 (ENS) - In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the annual seal hunt began today, and with it began a confrontation between a conservation vessel and the Canadian Coast Guard that is still ongoing.

Early this morning, the Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker Amundsen attempted to board the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s ship, the Farley Mowat. The conservation vessel arrived on Monday in the seal hunt area near the Magdalen Islands.

The Farley Mowat was in the middle of the sealing fleet, surrounded by about 70 sealing vessels, at dawn when the Canadian seal hunt officially opened.

From the bridge of the conservation vessel, Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder and president and a veteran of many seal-saving campaigns, reported that Coast Guard officers have "rigged a large cage on a derrick which it appears they intend to swing over the side with a boarding party.

"They also have a large chunk of metal on a wire rope attached to another derrick which appears to be a set-up for a wrecking ball," Watson said.


The Coast Guard vessel Amundsen approaches the Sea Shepherd vessel Farley Mowat. (Photo courtesy SSCS)
"I have asked them to verify if we are in violation of any regulations. They have refused to answer. We have not been told we are under arrest and we have not been told that we breaking any regulations. They have been maneuvering dangerously close to the Farley Mowat and at points only a few feet have separated the two vessels," Watson reports. 

At 8:30 this morning local time, the Amundsen attempted a ramming of the Farley Mowat. 

"Due to the gale during the night, numerous sealing ship were in need of assistance by the Coast Guard," Watson says. "The Farley Mowat was able to document numerous sealing violations on the ice by the sealing vessel Newfoundland Leader.  

Watson moved close to the Newfoundland Leader when the Coast Guard vessel Amundsen "approached at high speed, running down seals in the ice. The icebreaker came straight towards the starboard bow of the Farley Mowat on a collision course," said Watson. "The Farley Mowat had to do a full reverse to avoid the collision."

The Farley Mowat has a crew of 25 volunteers from seven countries, and the incident was documented on numerous video cameras, Watson said.

At 11 this morning, another confrontation erupted. The sealing vessel Gulf Clipper attempted to back into the Farley Mowat, Watson reports. "A man in the wheelhouse pointed a high powered rifle with a scope out the bridge window and aimed it at the bridge of the Farley Mowat. He then turned the rifle and sighted it on crewmember John Batchelor, who was standing on the bow of the Farley Mowat."


Sealer aims his rifle at a seal. (Photo courtesy DFO
Captain Watson contacted the Amundsen to request that they ask the Mounted Police officers onboard to warn the captain of the Gulf Clipper to desist in pointing a rifle at Sea Shepherd crewmembers. "The Mounties refused to do so," he states.

Shortly after noon, Watson reported from the bridge that the Amundsen "has stopped pursuing the Farley Mowat and is concentrating on rescuing distressed sealing vessels. A number of the sealing vessels appear to be having problems with the heavy ice. Two are reported as taking on water."

The temperature is unusually warm and the rain is pooling on the ice, Watson said.

The Farley Mowat has been informed that the ship and crew are in violation of the the Marine Mammal Regulations, also known as the seal protection regulations.

The crew said they all made out applications for permits but the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans insisted that the ship come into the Magdalen Islands, a place where numerous death threats have been made against Captain Watson and the crew and the place where the Watson and his crew were violently assaulted in 1995.

Watson and Sea Shepherd have been fighting to stop the Canadian seal hunt since 1976, and have saved hundreds of thousands of seals from slaughter. Watson has been arrested several times for his activities on the ice.

Members of the Sea Shepherd Society have petitioned the government; sprayed seal pups with harmless red dye to render their white pelts commercially useless; blockaded sealing vessels in the harbor; physically placed themselves in between the sealers and seals; and brought celebrity attention to the issue.

This year's seal hunt quota, set by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, is 319,517 seals. All sealing vessels are subject to strict rules, but in practice, conservation observers have seen the rules broken.

Sealing vessels must have a Vessel Monitoring System aboard, and government observers present. Vessels 35 to 65 feet long are required to hail the observer company, Seawatch, and provide daily hail reports to Canadian Coast Guard Radio.

The seal hunt off the Newfoundland and Laborador coast begins April 12.


Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States observes a baby harp seal. (Photo courtesy HSUS)
Other conservation observers are on the ice as well. Growing up in a sealing community in Newfoundland, Rebecca Aldworth was always aware of the hunt, but it was not until she saw television footage of the killing that she realized what it was. Today, she is director of Canadian wildlife issues for the Humane Society of the United States, and she is on the ice today observing the hunt.

"At 7:34 am, I watched the barbaric clubbing of one of the first baby seals killed on Canada's ice floes this season, signaling the start of the largest commercial slaughter of marine mammals on the planet," she writes in an appeal for funding for the organization's campaign.

"Your donation today will help us go head to head with the fishing industry and the Canadian government as we create a public outcry so loud - and an international boycott so effective - that Canada will no longer be able to ignore it."

That is the type of statement that the local communities that depend on sealing for their livelihood object to. They say their opponents are well funded and powerful, while they feed their families with the proceeds of the seal hunt.

Canadian Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan, who is from Atlantic Canada, supports the sealers and claims that the seal population can sustain the three year quota of over 900,000 seals permitted for the years 2003 - 2005.

"Our management plan for the annual seal hunt is based on solid science that is reviewed by scientists from Canada, the United States and Europe," Regan said on March 11. "We monitor the population yearly, and conduct an intensive survey every five years."


Sealing vessels on their way to the annual hunt. (Photo courtesy DFO)
"We recently completed a survey in 2004, and the results will be available shortly, in time to begin planning a management approach for the 2006 hunt," the minister said.

"I should point out that, once again,," said Regan, "scientists from around the world will participate in the review of the 2004 survey results. In addition, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) will participate in the review. I understand that the IFAW will be presenting an alternative management model for scientific consideration at a meeting in May."

"With this scientific data in hand, DFO draws up a management plan, based on sound conservation principles," the minister said. "We establish a healthy baseline for the hunt that ensures a seal herd of 70 percent of the current population of around five million. Our goal is simple: to maintain a healthy, strong, sustainable population for years to come."

But Greenpeace Canada says the government's information is flawed. "This is a global embarrassment for Canada as we fail in our responsibility of stewardship of the harp seals," said Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. "The Atlantic Seal Hunt Management Plan is based on bad science, incorrect assumptions and flawed modeling and does not take many vital issues into consideration. Hundreds of thousand of seals are being killed today with no clear understanding of the ecological impacts."

The commercial seal hunt in Atlantic Canada in 2004 was the source of more than C$16.5 million in direct revenue from the sale of pelts and meat, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This is up from the estimated $13 million value for 2003 but down from the estimated value of $21 million in 2002.

The Canadian government subsidizes the annual seal hunt. According to reports from the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment, more than C$20 million in subsidies were provided to the sealing industry between 1995 and 2001 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Human Resources Development Council, and Canada Economic Development-Quebec. These subsidies fund the salaries for seal processing plant workers, market research and development trips, and capital acquisitions for processing plants.