Essentially known to the world as a non-biased and self-absorbed nation, the pristine face of Canada changes dramatically as the controversial seal hunt begins in the waters and on the ice floes off Atlantic Canada right as spring begins. The bloody images of baby seals clubbed to death, the heated rhetoric, the impassioned defenses, the gory stories in graphic details make world headlines and the communities furious. They all combine in a familiar rite that pits Canada governments and sealers against animal/human rights groups.
Yet, I am not fully aware why the Canadian government continues to perform this barbaric act in an otherwise civilized society. Few facts in this debate go unchallenged. All sides agree on where and when. But the answers to how, why, and even how many aren’t as clear. It is a brutal, bloody and barbaric massacre of seals. Most of them are babies — just days or weeks old. Last year, over 40,390 seals were reported killed, even cut open while still alive. For what?
For seal fur hats and sealskin gloves and other luxury items no one needs? It is well estimated that 70% of the baby harp seal population died last year.
Even the language of the action is chosen carefully. ‘Hunt’ or ‘slaughter’. ‘Sea mammals’ or ‘baby seals’. ‘Cherished tradition’ or ‘economic disaster’. ‘Cod-eating nuisance’ or ‘adorable innocent’.
The images of the hunt are even more powerful, and seal hunt opponents know it. Most people find the pictures difficult to watch, but supporters say the same kind of thing happens in slaughterhouses — places where cameras aren’t allowed.
There are seal product import bans in 30 countries, including the European Union. Recently Russia, too, banned the trade in harp seal skins. The time has come to acknowledge that the world does not want or need cruel seal products.
Here is an excerpt from a U.K. reporter during a past hunt… ‘The baby seal looked into the eyes of her executioner. Barely a flicker of emotion showed on the fisherman’s face as he smashed a steel-lipped club into her mouth. She lay whimpering on the ice, blood pouring from her jaw and nose. But she wasn’t yet dead, so the sealer hit her in the face another four times before slamming a hooked hakapik club into her stomach and dragging her across the ice towards the ship’.
Here are a few of the questions swirling around the debate and how the big stakeholders respond.
Why the hunt?
The economic value of the seal hunt is one of those things that is open to interpretation. The federal government says the landed value of seals exceeded $16.5 million in 2005, providing a “significant” source of income for thousands of sealers — benefiting them and their families at a time when, according to the DFO, “other fishing options are unavailable, or limited at best, in many remote, coastal communities.”
- The European Union typically accounts for about 15 per cent of Canada’s seal exports.
- In 2007, Canada exported more than $13 million worth of seal products, including meat, oil and skins.
- South Korea and Japan were the largest consumers of seal meat, while China, South Korea and the United States bought the most seal fat and oil from Canada.
- When it comes to seal skins, about 80 per cent are sent to Norway.
- Source: 2007 data from Department of Fisheries and Oceans
- The DFO says the 2005 seal catch ranked fifth in value of all the species it monitors, after snow crab, shrimp, lobster, and cod.
- The DFO also says the 2006 seal catch was one of the most profitable in memory, a combination of a higher allowable catch and a high price for pelts. Since then, however, the total allowable catch has been cut by 100,000 seals and the price for the best pelts has dropped from $105 in 2006 to an expected $15 in 2009.
Where does the Atlantic seal hunt take place?
The hunt usually opens in March in the “Gulf” areas around the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island. The main hunt on the so-called “front” usually begins in April off the east coast of Newfoundland. It’s pretty much over by May.
How many are they allowed to hunt?
There are federal quotas for three types of seals: harp seals, hooded seals and grey seals. Most of the hunt is for harp seals. The 2009 harp seal total allowable catch has been set at 280,000, up slightly from the previous year. That’s down from the 2006 quota of 325,000, and about the same as the quota set from 1997 to 2002. The catch in 2001 was 226,000. In 2000, it was 92,000 seals.
The 2009 total allowable catch is 8,200 for hooded seals and 50,000 for grey seals.
Are seals skinned alive?
Yes. Upto 45 % are skinned alive. The IFAW charges that seals are often “skinned before being rendered fully unconscious” and said its observers found that few sealers check for a blinking reflex to confirm brain death before skinning begins. However, a 2002 report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that “the large majority of seals taken during this hunt … are killed in an acceptably humane manner.”
Regarding the “skinning alive” charge, the DFO says appearances can be deceiving. “Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed,” the DFO says. “However, seals have a swimming reflex that is active, even after death. This reflex falsely appears as though the animal is still alive when it is clearly dead — similar to the reflex in chickens.”
Furthermore, the DFO says the club, or hakapik, used by many sealers is “an efficient tool” that kills “quickly and humanely.” The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing in Canada found that clubbing, when properly performed, is at least as humane as killing methods in commercial slaughterhouses. Opponents say clubbing often isn’t “properly performed.”
What is made out of the seal?
For hundreds of years, seals have been hunted for food, the lamp and cooking fuel made from their oil and their warm pelts. Seal products nowadays include leather, meat for animal and human consumption and seal oil, which is rich in Omega-3.
That’s a lot of explanation and pretty luxury items derived from the hunt, for an inhumane act we can do without. And it is also proved that cod and seals can co-habit, an essential excuse why seals are hunted.
Animal welfare groups have been outraged after the federal government announced this week a 400,000 pelt quota for this year’s seal hunt began last Monday.
Fax Prime Minister Stephen Harper at 001-613-941-6900 and/or visit http://www.ifaw.org and help to stop this cruelty.