Seal Hunting: A Cruel Slaughter on Ice

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Seal Hunting: A Cruel Slaughter on Ice

It is time the commercial seal hunt was relegated to the history books where it belongs, writes Rebecca Aldworth
May 2003

The commercial seal hunt is in full swing off Canada's East Coast. More than 224,000 pups have already been clubbed or shot to death; another 126,000 will likely be killed by mid-May.

The seal nursery, one of the world's great wildlife spectacles, is once again soaked in blood.

I grew up in Newfoundland. It was there I first saw the seal slaughter on CBC television; horrific black-and-white images of sealers clubbing baby seals.

We lived in a small outport of 340 people. I had eaten seal meat, and my family knew sealers. But I had never seen a live seal. I had never truly understood until I saw the agony in those pups' eyes the brutal reality of this hunt.

Two weeks ago I returned from observing, for the fifth time, what few Canadians ever see the commercial seal slaughter both in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Newfoundland. This "hunt" is as brutal as ever and no compassionate person could ever support it.

This year, the ice cover was unusually thick. The sealing boats formed a circle around huge pans measuring more than a mile across. We filmed from the centre.

Moving towards the sealers, we passed giant pools of blood with trails leading back to the boats. Everywhere, carcasses stared up at us, left behind by the sealers. The pups left alive moved miserably through the carnage, bewildered and covered in blood.

We got very close to the sealers, and could see and hear everything: The splatter of blood as the clubs hit, the cries of seals as they were struck.

The killing methods were cruel. The sealer would club a seal, and it would lie still. He would begin to cut it open, but all too often, it would start to move. The sealer would react by clubbing the animal again. It would lie still, and the sealer would resume skinning. Again the seal would move. Usually the sealer would give up and finish skinning the still thrashing animal.

The Marine Mammal Regulations require that sealers perform a simple test to ensure the seal is dead prior to skinning. It involves quickly touching the animals' eyeball and watching for a reaction. But almost none of the sealers did it.

I also witnessed sealers hooking conscious animals through the skull, dragging them to the boats. Tossing wounded seals across the ice. Allowing seals that had been shot to escape and die slowly. Some seals would bite at the gaffe as they were hooked through the mouth. Journalists and sealers report seal pups regaining consciousness on the deck of the boat. I have witnessed these scenarios each and every year that I have observed this hunt.

Much of the time, the Coast Guard circled and watched us from the air. They did nothing to stop the abuse.

There are journalists who romanticize this "hunt," disenchanted urbanites portraying a fantasy version of rural life. They are of the school that equates brutality with bravery, greed with tenacity.

But there is nothing noble about slaughtering 350,000 baby seals; there is nothing brave about a grown man clubbing or shooting a 3-week-old animal with no means of escape.

Somewhere in the debate, it has been overlooked that Newfoundlanders sealed so their children wouldn't have to.

People are injured and die in the course of the slaughter; others are emotionally damaged by the violence they witness. In an average year, sealers return with sealskins to find rock-bottom prices. In some years, they have dumped them into the ocean because the processing companies stopped buying.

This is not work future generations of Newfoundlanders will choose to do. The young adults who are leaving the province grew up with higher expectations than eking out a miserable existence on a bloody sealing boat.

But we continue to sink massive subsidies into this dying industry and then lay off the rural schoolteachers who offer young people their only hope to compete on the national business stage.

In truth, it is far cheaper for the federal government to support this hunt than to put any real money into education and sustainable job creation. It is far easier to blame seals for disappearing cod than to take responsibility for two centuries of overfishing.

This slaughter provides little income for the people of our Atlantic provinces, puts the already fragile ecosystem of the Northwest Atlantic at risk, and badly tarnishes the image of our nation. It is time this outdated and cruel slaughter was relegated to the history books where it belongs.


Rebecca Aldworth is a campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare Canada. The IFAW works to reduce commercial exploitation of animals, protecting wildlife habitats, and assisting animals in distress.

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