An Introduction to the Canadian Seal Hunt

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An Introduction to the Canadian Seal Hunt

From HarpSeals.org
March 2009

Seal pups are famous for their big black eyes and fluffy white fur. These are their trademarks in their first two weeks of life. But these beautiful and gentle creatures have the unfortunate status of annually suffering the largest slaughter of any marine mammal species on the planet.

Every spring, great numbers of pregnant harp seals gather together on the stark ice floes off the Canadian Atlantic coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the east of Quebec to give birth to their babies.

Commonly referred to as whitecoats, these famous babies are astounding in their innocence, individuality, and beauty. Their images have been captured in a thousand ways and distributed around the world, making them the most recognizable and well known of nature's innocent and precious creatures. It is ironic and sad that all this recognition does nothing to help their plight as these seal pups are the victims of a brutal annual massacre in a politically-driven, propaganda-supported slaughter.

Every year, when the time is "right" (as soon as the ice conditions permit and the seal pups start shedding their fuzzy white coats), about 2,000 to 6,000 Canadian fishermen (most of European descent and most living in Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands of Quebec), find their way to the floes and proceed to club, bludgeon, shoot, and skin hundreds of thousands of harp seals, most just a few weeks to a few months old.

The Harsh Reality of the 'Hunt'


Sealer about to strike seal pup (c) IFAW

Today's modern seal "hunt" isn't really much of a hunt at all... In fact, depending on the condition of the ice flows, the sealers can have varying degrees of difficulty in getting to the seals. Methods include: walking from their trucks, driving up to them with their snowmobiles, taking commercial icebreaking boats to distant ice flows, then getting out of the boats and walking to them, or shooting seals from the larger ships or smaller boats. Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker ships often locate seal herds and shepherd sealers to them by breaking a path through the ice for them. Aerial reconnaissance is also used to locate the seals.

Once they find the seals, the true horrific nature of this bizarre event unfolds. In the first phase of the hunt (in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, dominated by sealers from the Magdalen Islands of Quebec), sealers typically approach the seals and then club them with 'hakapiks' (long sticks with a hooked blade at one end). After clubbing the seals, they are supposed to perform the 'blinking-eye' test, checking whether the seals blink, before skinning them. If the seal is not dead, sealers may dispatch the seal with a variety of methods, including kicking in the face and/ or continuing to beat the seal pups on the head with the hakapiks. The sealer may move on to other seals before skinning them or may skin them at that time. He will drag the seal to the boat with the hook end of the hakapik. If the sealer did not bother to check whether the seal was dead, the seal may conscious when the hooked blade is plunged into its mouth or head. An analysis by a panel of veterinarians showed that about 40% of the seals are actually skinned alive.


A mother harp seal mourns over bloodied and skinned remains of her baby

Coast Guard icebreaker ship cutting path for sealing boats.
In the second phase of the seal hunt, on the Front, in the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, seals are more mobile and able to swim, so sealers (mostly Newfoundland fishermen) typically shoot them from their boats. They aim for the head to avoid damaging the pelt. If they miss and wound the seal, they may get out of the boat and club the seal, unless the seal gets away into the water. In that case, the seal likely dies in the water and may never be recovered (or counted towards the quota). Sealers retrieve the seals with hooks, e.g., the hooked end of the hakapik, so if the seal was not killed by the bullet, it may be conscious when the hook is plunged into its mouth and it is dragged onto the boat.


Sealer skinning seals

Adults and resisting mothers may be shot and/ or clubbed and skinned and in the case of males, may have their penis bones removed. (Typically the penis bones are harvested from adult males). If convenient to do so, some of the bodies are recovered and processed into pet food or used to feed the animals in fur farms (though this is rare). About 95% of the seals killed in the commercial seal 'hunt' are no more than 3 months old.

In 2008, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), set new standards for sealers to follow when killing seals. In addition to the blinking-eye test, the DFO now instructs sealers to palpate the seal's skull to assess whether it has been fatally crushed before proceeding to skin the seal. If the skull does not seem to have such a fatal wound, sealers are supposed to sever the main artery. In order to instruct sealers on the new standards, the Canadian Sealers Association sent individuals around Newfoundland with an instructional video a few weeks before the start of the hunt.

Each year, sealers kill about 1/3 of the pups born. This number does not include those seals that slip away wounded into the ice holes and sea leads. The seals killed by Canadian sealers must also be added to the natural (and human-driven) mortality. As global warming makes the ice floes less reliable, this mortality is on the rise.

Why the slaughter?

What is it about this particular species of animal that has made it the target of such an intense campaign of slaughter every year for hundreds of years? The answer is complex and varies depending on the time of history being discussed.

The exploitation and commercial slaughter of the harp seal is one of the most tragic stories ever known to mankind, and in particular, to people who care about animals and the environment. Before the advent of modern technology and hunting methods, the harp seal was hunted and used by native Canadians who lived in a traditional society. The adult seals were killed, their fur, meat, and bones utilized for food, clothing, and shelter by the native peoples. These animals were valued for contributing to their survival.

Although the sustainable killing of harp, hooded, harbor and ringed seals by native peoples of northern latitudes for food and fur had indeed taken place for thousands of years, the most recent 300 years brought about a new reason for killing harp seals: commercial exploitation, and with that, the end to any shred of necessity for seal products or respect for the animals. An incessant desire and greed for the profits to be made from the seals' pelts and blubber drove many men and businesses into a pathetic circle of death and despair for most involved.

Sealing boats sometimes get stuck in the ice and Canadian Coast Guard helicopters come to their rescue.

Sealing was an extremely dangerous business throughout history and many sealers lost their lives while pursuing their sealing livelihood. In the beginning of the commercial hunt, only a few aristocratic families earned immense wealth and profits from the dangerous and bloody work and despair of the uneducated, average man trying to earn a living the only way he thought he could... from the slaughter of seals. In modern times, the captains of sealing boats (and the seal skin processors) are the only financial winners. Seal boat captains typically take 50% of the revenues, leaving the sealing crew to split what remains.

For more on the history of the seal hunt visit Canadian Geographic.

The Seal Wars of the past 3 decades changed the landscape of the once strong commercial market. Thanks to the hard work and creativity of a few hardcore activists and volunteers, the European ban on whitecoat pelt imports and the boycott of Canadian seafood in Britain (1983, 1987) had a dramatic impact on the number of seals killed and the commercial market as a whole. In fact, in 1987, the Canadian seal pelt market was nearly destroyed until the government stepped in with their subsidies to bolster up the struggling business. With hundreds of thousands of pelts stored and rotting in warehouses in Canada and Norway, there were simply not enough buyers for the pelts. In addition, since there never was a commercial demand for the meat, the few pounds of meat actually processed went to the pet food market, fur farms, and a few specialty sausage brands.


Seal skin coats

But the Canadian government was undeterred. The government worked hard and spent millions on developing new markets. They soon exploited a loophole in the European ban on whitecoat pelts by banning the killing of the less-than-14-day-old seals (whitecoats) and sending sealers out to kill seals once they started to molt. At this point, they become ragged jackets; and, once they finish molting (after a few weeks), they become beaters. The markets for their pelts were bolstered, and the intense killing resumed.

In 2008, the European Union has moved to expand the seal pelt import ban to include all seal products, from seals of any age and species. Time will tell the results of this legislation.

What are the main reasons behind the continued killing in the 21st century?

The simple answer is, for the pelts, but the full truth is much more complex. A few words that come to mind when attempting to explain the seal 'hunt': vanity, greed, political scapegoats, pride/stubbornness and bloodlust.

The basic travesty of making scapegoats of the seals is as follows: due to years of overfishing, inept DFO management of fisheries and ocean ecosystems, and unenforced regulations, Canada suffered a total collapse of the once bountiful cod fishery on their Eastern seaboard in the early 1990's. (See Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Collapse by Greenpeace.)


Atlantic cod

Over 40,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the destruction of the North Atlantic cod fishery. This collapse of a once great industry had the much forewarned effect (by many scientists and activists who saw it coming for years) of putting great numbers of Eastern Canadian fisherman out of work and into financial hardship, looking for answers and alternatives. Things were looking pretty bleak until a few clever Newfoundland politicians came up with an ingenious plan: they would use the harp seal herds as the official explanation for the collapse of the fish stocks and at the same time sell the idea of using the seals as an economic alternative to the cod. And so they started selling the propaganda of "the seals were eating all the cod" to the frustrated fisherman; and most bought it (excuse the pun), hook, line, and sinker.

In these years following the collapse of the cod fishery, the Canadian government increased the seal kill quotas for the eager out of work fishermen. For a better understanding of how and why this propaganda works, please see the Politics and Propaganda section.

Although the exact amount of Cod that harp seals eat is a debatable issue, what is agreed by all credible scientists and biologists involved: the seals didn't cause the fishery collapse and the seals aren't going to keep the fishery from coming back. Cod is only a small percentage of the harp seals' diet, yet they also consume predators of cod and are part of a complex food web. Biologists know that healthy fisheries need healthy seal populations to prosper. (See Marine Ecosystem Basics for more information on this.) Even though the DFO's own scientists concluded in 1994 that "the collapse of northern cod can be attributed solely to overexploitation" ("What Can Be Learned from the Collapse of a Renewable Resource? Atlantic Cod, Gadus morhua, of Newfoundland and Labrador", Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, V. 51, No. 9, Jeffrey A. Hutchings and Ransom A. Myers, 1994), it wasn't until about 2005, that the DFO began to admit that the seals did not cause the collapse of the cod fishery ...but the damage is done and, sadly, most sealers still believe this propaganda.

And to make matters even more tragic and pathetic, the government propaganda machine even now continues to dupe the stubborn and ignorant sealing population (much the same way the rich sealing families did to the uneducated poor "working sealers" for so many years) into believing that sealing is the only way they can earn a living for their families.

Although the majority of Canadians oppose the seal hunt, and there have been numerous viable alternatives to the seal "harvest" offered in the past 20 years, (like ecotourism and the harvesting of seal hairs for the bedding industry by brushing molting seals), the sealers have rejected these offers and the DFO isn't interested..... but such is Canadian fisheries politics...

And there is another modern day reason for sealing: The seal penis bone. The seal penis bone was for several years more valuable than the price of a first grade pelt. Asian businesses eagerly sought out the seal penis bones as aphrodiasics for a booming quack industry commonly utilizing rare or endangered animal parts (proven by countless scientific studies to be ineffective.) These black market businesses contracted with shady Canadian fisheries businesses skilled in trafficking these animal parts- while the government vehemently denied it even occurred. Since "erectile dysfunction" drugs came to market, the market for seal penis bones has declined dramatically.

In addition to these reasons for the seal hunt, one must consider the issues of bloodlust and 'pride' or stubbornness in maintaining this tradition. Even in 2008, when sealers were lucky to break even, a few thousand went out to the ice to kill seals. Time after time, sealers are quoted as saying that they kill the seals because it's their tradition and that nobody has the right to tell them to stop. Some have been quoted as saying that they enjoy sealing. (See "Swilers on the sidelines...")

Three things are certain:

It's not about the meat.


Ice floe strewn with seal carcasses, left to rot

Only small amounts of the seal's meat is processed and utilized in any manner. (DFO regulations state that "either the pelt OR the meat must be used for each animal.") It is rarely used by non-indigenous peoples for food - even most Newfoundlanders find it too fatty and distasteful. Since the price paid for the meat is very low, only small amounts are sold for the pet food trade or fur farms, while the rest is simply left to rot on the ice.

It's not about subsistence

Few natives or indigenous peoples are involved in killing the seals in the commercial "hunt." The indigenous people of Canada who hunt seals for subsistence purposes do not abide by the commercial seal hunt quota. Nevertheless, the Canadian government has used those few indigenous people involved in the commercial seal hunt as a tool to lobby the European Union in opposition to the seal import ban.

And it's not about seal oil


Seal oil capsules

Although the Canadian government supports research on harp seal oil as a health food supplement, the trend hasn't caught on. It seems most consumers aren't sold on a supplement made from horrifically killed baby seals. (See the pelts page for some recent prices paid for seal blubber.)

Though the industry tries to hide the fact that their "omega-3 oil supplements" come from harp seal pups by calling them "marine oils," many consumers are savvy enough to read the fine print and purchase flax seed or hemp seed oil instead.


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