By John Thompson on
Every year pregnant harp seals haul themselves out on the ice flows off the Newfoundland coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Their pups are born with a soft white coat and big dark eyes. That adorable, innocent look is perfect for photos of hunters clubbing them to death on the bloodstained ice.
Every year those images generated ascending howls of angry and anguished protest that did result in a ban on taking "whitecoats" commercially.
At 25 days old, however, the pups' molt and take on the mottled darker fur often seen in fashion ads. Not cute enough, perhaps, to prevent the Canadian government from subsidizing the killing of these so-called "beaters."
Canadian officials defend the "hunt" saying it is a sustainable harvest, the methods are humane, and the sale of pelts provides necessary income for the sealers.
Economists, though, say "baloney!" This business is insolvent and only continues because of the several types of government subsidies.
Professor John Livernois of the Department of Economics , University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, provides an interesting perspective in his March 5, 2009 paper, "The Economics of Ending Canada's Commercial Harp Seal Hunt." (The link takes you to the Abstract and Article Outline on Science Direct.) Some of the points he makes help us understand the business of the annual seal slaughter.
The emotional side of the debate, which Prof. Livernois acknowledges is highly charged, cannot be assigned a dollar value, but those passions drive significant expenditures that can be quantified. For instance, the Humane Society of the United States and many animal advocate groups like Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Conservation Society spend considerable amounts in illuminating the gory slaughter.
Watson was himself arrested and jailed for witnessing and filming the gory details. Yes, Canadian law prohibits viewing within one kilometer of the kill zone.
Industry and government agencies also spend considerably on advancing the pro-hunting argument. The government expenses, though, are considerably higher than other participants as there are major indirect costs associated with supporting the hunt. Rescue operations rank high on that list.
A Total Allowable Catch governs how many seals can be killed. However, there is no limit on the harvest by an individual fishing boat. This simple reality causes intense competition among participants. Often, boat captains take extravagant risks when entering the ever-shifting ice flows to be early on site. This has resulted in costly air and sea rescue operations by the Canadian Coast Guard.
The type of craft used enhances the danger. These are open water fishing vessels that cannot withstand crush forces within the ice flow. Many boats and lives have been lost in the hope of slaughtering enough seals to make a profit.
Profits, however, are slim to non-existent for most participants. Using government data Prof. Livernois estimates that in 2008 earnings per sealer was around $281. His calculations also reflect an industry that would have long ago expired were it not for the direct and indirect government support.
It is clear, then, that mega dollars go toward both advocacy and direct support. This reality would seem to offer a solution that animal welfare people could embrace.
There are many examples of gently euthanizing untenable industries by converting existing expenditures into welfare support. Those funds help pay for both personal and commercial transition into other more sustainable pursuits.
Prof. Livernois also discusses other solutions that work in the real world such as negotiated buy-outs or reverse auctions in which participants tender bids for not engaging in their trade.
The point is that while focusing on the brutality of this ugly business is unavoidable, there are other ways to achieve a win-win for everyone.