Canadian Seal Hunt Quota Set at 335,000

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, March 16, 2006 (ENS) - Canadian sealers will be permitted to kill 335,000 seals this year, Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Loyola Hearn announced Wednesday. While the minister said the quota was a balance between conservation and economics, environmental groups were appalled.

“Unbelievable - with all of the risks already facing the harp seal population this year, the federal government has chosen to issue such a ridiculously high quota and allow this unsustainable, unacceptably cruel, so-called hunt to continue,” said Olivier Bonnet, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Canada director.

Some experts were calling for extra caution this year, including a cancellation of the hunt, due to unseasonably warm weather affecting ice conditions off the East coast.

"We feel we have struck the appropriate balance between conservation and economic concerns," said Minister Hearn. "The seal hunt is humane and sustainable and it is an important economic activity for sealers and communities in Atlantic Canada and Quebec."


Born and raised in the fishing village of Renews, Newfoundland, Loyola Hearn has been Canada's Minister of Fisheries and Oceans since February 6, 2006. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
“Sadly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are playing the same dangerous politics with our wildlife, following in the Liberals’ misguided footsteps," Bonnet said of the new government's seal hunt position. "We hoped they would take a more intelligent, conservative approach to the conservation of our marine environment.”

The opening date for the 2006 harp seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will be determined over the next week in consultation with industry. The opening date for the seal hunt on the Front, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador will be announced in a few weeks. The Front hunt does not typically open before April.

As part of the 2006-2010 Atlantic Seal Management Plan, Hearn said a quota of 325,000 is set for the regular hunt, plus an additional 10,000 harp seal allowance has been set aside for new aboriginal initiatives, personal use and Arctic hunts. This one-year allowance will provide opportunities for aboriginal communities to access the resource and benefit from this growing market, Hearn said.

Besides the economic benefits of the hunt, seals are an important source of nutrition, as well as a focus of social and cultural life for aboriginal peoples and other residents of Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Far North, according to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

The harp seal population increased steadily from the 1970s through to the mid-1990s,the DFO says. The population has remained relatively stable since then.

"The harp seal herd is abundant and healthy. It stands at approximately 5.8 million animals; nearly triple the size of the herd in the 1970s," said Hearn. "This is a conservation success story."

Conservationists disagree that the herd is abundant enough to withstand a kill quota of 335,000 this season. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) Wednesday released a study by conservation biologist Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University, which shows that the quota levels in the seal hunts of Canada and Greenland "pose a threat to the very survival of the harp seal population."


A Canadian sealer gets ready to kill a young seal with a specialized club called a hakapik. (Photo by S. Cook courtesy IFAW)
The study notes that over the past six years nearly 400,000 harp seals from the Northwest Atlantic population have been killed annually by Canada and Greenland together - the highest kill levels since the 1950s. Most of the seals are killed on Canada's ice floes.

When the seals that are struck and lost, that is wounded animals who escape and are not recovered, more than half of all the seal pups born each year are slaughtered, Harris said.

"When such hunting pressure last occurred, the harp seal population declined rapidly by over 50 percent," said Harris. "Given seals only reach breeding age at about five to six years old, it could be too late to intervene by the time the impacts of current hunting levels are understood."

The Harris report criticizes the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for failing to include environmental variables such as climate change in their Atlantic Seal Management Plan.

Harris notes that the current DFO population estimate for harp seals relied on a very small sample size. Less than two percent of the breeding site was evaluated to extrapolate the population.

Harris points out that several other Canadian fisheries, such as the cod fishery, have collapsed over the years as a consequence of many variables, including environmental change and mismanagement. The harp seal management plan does not apply a precautionary principle, Harris says, and so threatens the survival of seal populations.

"The DFO has a long and documented track record of overestimating marine populations and allowing species to be fished into commercial extinction," said Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian wildlife issues for The HSUS. "Regardless of their management plans, we know the current kill levels for harp seals are not sustainable. The last time we allowed sealers to kill this many seals, the harp seal population rapidly crashed."

Canadian Fisheries Minister Hearn says that while the management plan spans five years, the quota, or Total Allowable Catch (TAC), for harp seals will be set on an annual basis. Setting an annual TAC provides flexibility to allow for adjustments to changing environmental conditions, Hearn said. Other factors, such as ice conditions, natural mortality, and incidental harvest or by-catch will be taken into consideration when setting future annual TAC levels.

The minister said the DFO will continue to emphasize at-sea surveillance and conduct dockside checks, monitor quotas, and ensure humane hunting practices and the proper use of hunting instruments.

Hearn says the department is also looking at long-term changes in order to further improve on humane hunting practices and overall management of the hunt.

On Wednesday, March 15, which is the traditional start date of the Canadian seal hunt, seal defenders took to the streets in cities around the world to protest the killing of seals in Canada. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sponsored the International Day of Action for the Seals.

Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson participated in the protest at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles.

There were demonstrations in cities across Canada and the United States, Australia, South Africa, Croatia, Hungary, France, Germany, the UK, and Russia.

Conservationists are promoting a boycott of Canadian seafood as a seal hunt protest.

“This movement is growing,” said Watson, who has battled the seal hunt since 1977. “Already we have cost Canada more in losses in seafood sales than the nation profits from sealing. That is a language government and industry can both understand. We will keep the losses higher than the profits until this horrifically cruel mass slaughter of seal pups is ended.”


An estimated 335,000 seals will be killed within a few weeks by Canadian sealers, the largest marine mammal kill on Earth. (Photo courtesy SF Bay Indymedia)
Canada exports seal products in three forms: sealskins, seal oil and seal meat. Exports of seal meat have declined in recent years due to a sharp decline in exports to Asia, the DFO said in a 2005 analysis of the 2003-2005 Atlantic Seal Management Plan. Asia was replaced by Europe as the main destination for seal oil and skins, but it remains the principal market for seal meat exports.

In 2002, sealers harvested 312,367 harp seals, the DFO analysis shows. There were four major seal buyers/processors in Newfoundland and Labrador, one in Prince Edward Island and one in the Magdalen Islands. In Newfoundland and Labrador, these companies purchased a total of approximately 284,827 harp seal pelts and 2,426 other seal pelts having a landed value of $21 million. Meat and other products were valued at less than $1 million.

The 2002 figures compare with an estimated landed value of $5.5 million for 2001. The estimated value is based on the average price buyers paid to sealers.

As a result of the government-wide review of priorities and activities in 1994, the DFO is no longer involved in product support or promotion activities.

In the last few years, the seal harvest in Atlantic Canada has been directed at beater seals - harp seals between 25 days and 13 months of age. Beater seals provide the most valuable pelts and market conditions are stronger for this type of pelts, the DFO said.

"Finding a market for seal meat outside of Newfoundland continues to present a major challenge for the sealing industry," the DFO said. "There has always been a local market for a number of seal flippers in Newfoundland. Over the last few years, the value of this market was limited."

There has been was virtually no market for seal organs since 1998.

While Greenland has a seal hunt, the Greenland government ordered its publicly owned tannery, Great Greenland, to stop buying Canadian seal pelts as of January 1, 2006 because of its opposition to the Newfoundland seal hunt.