To Kill or Not to Kill? New Hope in the Fight to Save Baby Seals

As the Canadian season ends, seal hunters find themselves facing further restrictions.

Harp seal cubs are the target of Canadian seal hunters. (Photo: Paul Darrow/Reuters)

May 2, 2013· 7 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

This past week has not been kind to Canadian seal hunters.

On April 24 in Luxembourg, the European Union’s highest court dealt the sealing industry a severe blow by upholding a three-year-old ban on the importation of seal products.

Several days later, at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Canada was blasted by animal welfare advocates for petitioning the WTO to overturn the embargo.

While the game is changing, with bans on seal products instituted by Russia and Europe in the past few years, arguments in the debate are the same.

The average age of a killed seal is 25 days.On one side are the animal rights activists armed with chilling facts about the sealing trade. For instance, the average age of a killed seal is 25 days, according to the Canadian government.

Yes, it is illegal in Canada to kill harp seal pups when they still have their famous and valuable white, fluffy fur. But that begins to molt after 12 days, at which time the animals are fair game.

That’s bad timing for pups because they are abruptly weaned by their mothers when they reach 80 pounds, and are left alone on the ice, where they don’t eat for up to six weeks, before finally seeking prey in the ocean.

“It’s when they are at their most vulnerable,” says a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, Gabriel Wildgen. “It’s the prime time in their life that makes them perfect targets for Canadian commercial sealers.”

The pups cannot swim, they have not eaten, and their mothers are gone. Meanwhile, demand for baby seal pelts is higher than adult pelts, even if they are not white. Nearly all the pups killed are less than three months old.

On the other side, David Walters, spokesman for the government agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada, tells TakePart that Ottawa “remains unequivocal in its support for the Canadian sealing industry. We remain committed to supporting jobs and growth, which includes the economic benefits to northern and coastal regions of the country provided by the sealing industry.”

The “sustainable and well-managed seal harvest,” he adds, “continues to be an economic and cultural activity in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and the Arctic.”

And Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an environmental, social, cultural and political organization, recently accused the EU of harboring a “colonial, holier-than-thou attitude,” and added that “their self-serving interests have not resulted in a fair or just process for Inuit,” who have long relied on sealing for oil, meat and income.

The EU ban was imposed in 2010, and this week Canada and Norway—which also has a seal hunt—hauled the Union before the WTO's dispute settlement body. EU attorneys reportedly feel confident of victory over the sealers, whose well-publicized hunting of thousands of young harp seals has offended governments and consumers from Moscow to Mexico. (The U.S. banned the import of seal products back in 1972 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.)

The EU contended that “the scientific evidence stacks up in favor of its claims that slaughter methods—such as using a hakapik, a club with a metal spike on it that stuns seals before killing them—are cruel,” according to Agence France Press. This concurs with the sentiments of “the EU public [who are] overwhelmingly in favor of the ban.”

The seal hunters are adamant that their harvesting methods are ethical and “no worse than those used in commercial deer-hunting, which is widespread in the EU,” according to the French news agency.

Scientists and activists reject the sealers’ claims. HSUS, which calls the hunt “one of the largest slaughters of marine mammals on the planet,” has doggedly pursued the sealing industry, from the ice floes of Newfoundland, where the hunt takes place every April, to courts in European capitals, to the general court of world public opinion.

Rebecca Aldworth, Canada’s Executive Director of the Humane Society International, observed the Geneva hearings. “The EU presented considerable scientific evidence that both Canada and Norway’s seal slaughters are inherently inhumane,” she said in a statement. “The EU ban on seal product trade is entirely justified from public morality and animal welfare perspectives.”

As part of their evidence, EU attorneys showed images filmed by HSI during this year’s hunt, she said, “including wounded seals suffering in agony and gaffed, while presumably conscious, onto sealing vessels.”

As for last week’s EU court order upholding the import ban, HSUS’s Wildgen tells TakePart, “We were thrilled that the EU General Court made what we thought was a correct decision in saying the EU has every right to choose to not allow seal products from the commercial seal hunt to enter beyond their borders,” he says. “The hunt is inherently inhumane, and a vast majority of EU citizens don’t want seal products in Europe.”

HSUS organized protests last week at Brussels’ European Seafood Show, the world’s largest, and at the Boston Seafood Show, North America’s largest, where someone in a seal suit handed out stuffed baby seal plush toys to attendees in front of a sign truck that said “SAVE THE SEALS: Don’t buy while seals die. Boycott Canadian seafood.”

On this side of the Atlantic, an American boycott of Canadian seafood continues to gain momentum. Its organizer, the HSUS, recently announced that 6,000 restaurants and food businesses, and 800,000 people have signed a pledge to not consume fish or shellfish from north of the border.

The boycott is also backed by major companies, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Legal Sea Foods, and top celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali, Cat Cora, and Brian Malarkey. Other pledge-takers include BI-LO Supermarkets, Bon Appetit Management Company, China Grill Management Group, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafes, Lowes Foods, Ted’s Montana Grill, the Old Spaghetti Factory Restaurants and the Venetian and Palazzo Resorts.

“They are making it clear that the Canadian annual commercial seal hunt is an unacceptable business practice undertaken by Canada’s fishing industry,” the HSUS’s Protect Seals website declares. “U.S. companies have the power to help shift Canada toward responsible marine stewardship.”

Currently, more than 60 percent of all seafood consumed in this country comes from Canada—a $2.6 billion market for our neighbors to the north.

There is some evidence to suggest the boycott is having some impact. A majority of Canadians already oppose the commercial seal hunt and now, according to Wildgen, “We know that 80 percent of Newfoundland fisherman surveyed—all of whom have sealing licenses—are concerned about the boycott and well over half who've heard of the boycott admit to having felt the boycott's effect.”

In 2012, exports of Canadian seafood hit their lowest volume by weight in years, at 593,454 metric tons. In 2007, in contrast, the country exported 669,149 metric tons. There is no way to know if the boycott is partly responsible.

TakePart contacted the Canadian Seals and Sealing Network, which has offered the media experts “to discuss the economic, ecological and cultural importance of the seal hunt.”

But network coordinator Gil Thériault responded to TakePart with an email saying, “You mean this publication: Then, it’s pretty clear what kind of treatment my answers will have. No comment.”

More than 80,000 harp seals have already been killed this yearIn a subsequent email, Thériault added: “Has [sic] my time is limited, I prefer to concentrate my efforts on media interested by the truth, no [sic] the lies and propaganda of groups who don’t even support the sustainable use of natural, abundant and renewable resources.”

More than 80,000 harp seals have already been killed this year, Wildgen says. “You often see several of them on the same ice floe, watching their friends be killed brutally and die slowly,” before their turn comes.

And, he says, 67 percent of the seals are not tested for unconsciousness before they are gaffed with hooks, thrown onto boats and skinned. Some seals are allegedly skinned alive, though industry defenders say the animals’ movements are just post-mortem reflexes, much like a dead chicken.

“More than two million seal pups have been slaughtered for their fur since 2002, in spite of warm temperatures that melted the ice and caused many pups to drown,” the Protect Seals website claims. “Even though [the EU ban] was followed by Russia's 2011 decision to prohibit imports of harp seal pelts—eliminating Canada's largest market—the hunt has actually rebounded, taking more than 70,000 seals last year.”

In 2011, the hunt yielded just 40,000 seals, a steep fall from the 354,000 killed in 2006. Last year, Canada set a limit of 400,000 seals, and this year the sealing industry said 100,000 will be killed.

So, with Europe, the U.S., and Russia out of the picture, who is buying all those slaughtered seal products? Outside Canada, it’s hard to tell—both the industry and Canadian government officials are not saying.

“Export statistics demonstrate that there is global demand for seal products, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website states. Between 2005 and 2011, Canada exported over US$70 million worth of seal products to more than 35 countries, it says, without naming them, though the vast majority went to Russia prior to that country’s import ban.

The government website also promotes “Sealskin garments, including coats, boots, mittens and leather items.” Saying they are “both warm and waterproof, making them practical and prized in Canada’s harsh Northern regions.”

Ariane Bérubé, of the Magdalen Islands Sealers Association, said in a recent statement, “Market demand for Canadian seal products is on the rise. We receive calls from people every day looking for Canadian seal products, such as meat and Omega-3.”

This raises a red flag for those who do not wish to consume seal oil: If your Omega-3 products come from Canada, check the label.Seal meat “constitutes an important part of the Inuit diet and is also a traditional food in many Atlantic coastal communities,” the government site says. “Flipper pie is a traditional favourite in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The site also explains, “Seal meat is also increasingly featured in restaurants, especially in Quebec, and has been showcased on the menu of the Parliamentary Restaurant. Seal oil continues to be used for fuel in Northern and Inuit communities and is also found in Omega 3 health products, which are marketed in Canada under various brand names.”

This raises a red flag for those who do not wish to consume seal oil: If your Omega-3 products come from Canada, check the label.

The Canadian government says 5,000 to 6,000 people, “derive some kind of income from sealing,” for about two months of the year. But, according to Dion Dakins, CEO of Carino Processing, a seal processing plant in South Dildo, Newfoundland and Labrador, the hunt this year provided work for “1,000 seal hunters and plant workers in more than 40 coastal communities.”

With so few employed, and just part time, animal rights activists find it difficult to understand why Canada holds on to such a controversial practice.

Meanwhile, the value of seal products has plummeted, from $34.3 million in 2006, when a grade A1 pelt fetched about $105, to just $1.3 million in 2010, when the same pelt was worth a meager $27. Hunters earn another two dollars from selling the fat, flippers, and carcass.

This year, 844 hunters are out on the ice in Canada. They stand to make about $2,500 each. When tax dollars to monitor the hunt and $10 million to challenge the EU ban are factored in, the country is likely losing money, making the slaughter seem even more senseless to many outside observers.

As for ecological factors, the Fisheries Department’s Walters said, “The Canadian seal harvest is clearly sustainable at recent levels: the Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant; it is currently estimated at approximately 7.3 million animals, which is over three times what it was in the 1970s.”

However, seal populations were at record-low numbers in the 1970s, before regulations were instituted. Hunting at that time had killed two-thirds of Canadian harp seals.

Part of the HSUS campaign is to convince the Canadian government to buy back sealers’ licenses, to replace their lost income, and to “open new economic opportunities for the community by investing new money in seal-watching instead of seal-hunting, which could be more economically lucrative,” Wildgen explains.

Ultimately, Canadian sealers, most of whom are fishermen, make more money exporting seafood to the U.S. than from killing seals. Once they give up the secondary form of income, U.S. activists promise to call off the seafood boycott. That, they say, would be a very fair trade.

What other protections should be mandated to protect seal pup populations? Let us know in the Comments.