Canada Spends Millions of Dollars on Money-Losing Baby Seal Hunt

Animal rights group obtains a government document revealing expenditures on the annual killing of young seals that is widely criticized as cruel and inhumane.
(Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
Mar 8, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The annual Canadian seal hunt is not only controversial and, many people believe, cruel; it is also an economic drain on the Canadian government, costing at least five times more than the export income generated from the killing, according to a document obtained by Humane Society International.

A 2009 document from the country’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans reveals that the government spends about 2.5 million Canadian dollars annually to monitor the slaughter of baby seals, which had an export value of only CA$500,000 in 2014, according to Humane Society International.

“It’s absurd,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada, which submitted a public records request for the document. “The fact that the minimal level of monitoring that is conducted by the Canadian government exceeds the export value of this industry by $2 million is certainly a strong indication that this hunt should be ended for economic reasons alone.”

“We have a government that is well aware it’s pouring dollars into an economic sinkhole that will never recover,” Aldworth added. “But it continues to do so because, in the short term, it’s politically expedient as long as a few fishery unions and associations continue to support the slaughter.”

Most of the money is spent to ensure the “humaneness” of the seal hunt, according to the document.

Barbara Mottram, spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and oceans, said in an email that the cost of monitoring the hunt, "varies from year to year based on ice conditions and level of sealing activity."

Because the seal hunt had declined in recent years, she said, the department no spends $1 million to deploy an icebreaker as part of its monitoring efforts.

"Departmental costs, including those associated with the seal harvest, occur as part of the Department’s highly integrated fisheries management, harvest monitoring and enforcement programs," Mottram said. "It is difficult to extrapolate costs related strictly to the seal harvest."

About a decade ago, Canada adopted a series of new regulations for the hunt. “This has largely stemmed from increased international focus on the seal hunt and increased lobby efforts from anti-sealing groups,” the document states.

Among the monitoring costs are CA$1 million for icebreaker support, CA$475,000 for helicopter operations, and CA$375,000 in overtime pay for government staff who regulate the hunt.

But monitoring costs are “just the tip of the iceberg,” Aldworth said. Canada spends millions more each year on subsidies and other programs that support the killing, processing, and marketing of seals, she said, including an estimated CA$10 million to challenge a European Union ban on the seal-product trade.

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Then there are the indirect costs that are much harder to measure but still have an impact on the Canadian economy, Aldworth noted, including damage to the country’s international reputation and obstacles to trade deals because of opposition to the hunt.

Despite the high costs of monitoring and subsidies, the size of the seal hunt has shrunk considerably in recent years. In 2006, some 355,000 harp seals were killed on the sea-ice floes of Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the fisheries department. That number dropped to 60,000 by 2014, and last year 35,000 animals were taken.

That is largely because demand for Canadian seal products has fallen, and import restrictions have intensified.

In 2013, the European Union’s highest court upheld 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 to overturn the embargo.

Today, more than 35 countries ban the import of seal products, including the United States, Aldworth said.

Despite its decline, the seal hunt remains “the largest slaughter of marine mammals on Earth,” according to the Humane Society.

Some of the seals are hunted by indigenous people for subsistence.

Most of the animals killed are harp seals, and more than 97 percent of them are shot or bludgeoned to death before they reach three months of age.

By most accounts, the hunt is bloody and brutal.

“The baby seals are killed for their fur and their carcasses are routinely left to rot on the ice,” according to the Humane Society’s website. “Video evidence shows wounded baby seals left to suffer in agony, conscious seal pups sliced open or impaled on metal hooks and dragged across the ice, and seals killed with illegal weapons.”

For several years, groups such as the Humane Society have urged the government to end the killing by purchasing the licenses of seal hunters offering compensation for their losses and developing economic alternatives, such as seal-watching tours.

Aldworth said the government would consider such a move if the sealers approved of it. A 2010 poll found that half of Newfoundland sealers supported the plan.

“It’s about basic business principles,” Aldworth said. “The seal hunt would have come to an end many decades ago without the money that has gone to keeping it on artificial life support.”