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It’s not about the meat.

Bloody Ice Floe
Ice floe strewn with seal carcasses, left to rot. (c) IFAW

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 kept, while the rest is simply left to rot on the ice or dumped into the ocean.

Animal Welfare Assessments

Over the years, various studies have been conducted to assess the level of animal suffering in the Canada’s seal ‘hunt’. An analysis by a panel of veterinarians funded by IFAW in 2001 showed that about 40% of the seals are skinned while alive and conscious.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) funded a study in 2002, which the DFO cited as showing that the seal ‘hunt’ was sufficiently (i.e., 98%) humane, until the CVMA told them to stop misrepresenting this study.

Comparisons of these as well as other studies have been done, assessing their methodologies and conclusions. In the IFAW-funded study, the investigators did post-mortem examinations of the skulls of seal pups who were shot or clubbed after sealers left the area. The sealers did not know that investigators would be coming after they left.

In the CVMA-funded study, the report is based on the level of consciousness of seal pups once they were on-board the sealing vessel. Investigators were allowed on sealing boats with the full knowledge of the sealers. Even though the sealers knew that they were being observed by veterinary scientists and zoologists, they still brought 3 of 167 seal pups onto the deck alive and conscious, after clubbing them. These investigators also noted that 5.4% of seals targeted were ‘struck and lost’.

Read another comparison of harp seal ‘hunt’ studies of animal welfare here.

Why has this slaughter occurred over the years?

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 and continues to this day, 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. Seal pups were killed by the hundreds of thousands and their population dropped greatly.

http://www.harpseals.org/about_the_hunt/index.php

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

Over the years, the simple answer has been, 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’: ignorance, vanity, greed, scapegoating, pride/stubbornness and bloodlust.

With markets for the pelts at historic lows thanks to bans on imports across the globe, the DFO in recent years has stopped claiming that this is a ‘market-based hunt’. Once again, we hear talk of seals causing declines in fish stocks and contributing to the failure of some to recover from collapse.

The history of scapegoating seals dates back for decades. 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.

Atlantic cod
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 ate 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 harp seals are not preventing the fish population from recovering. 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 harp seals did not cause the collapse of the cod fishery …but the damage is done and, sadly, most sealers still believe this propaganda.

Today, however, the DFO is renewing claims that seals are damaging cod populations; however, now the DFO is blaming mostly the grey seals. According to the DFO’s website (‘Canadian Seal Harvest Myths and Realities’), “There is ongoing debate about the possible negative impacts of grey seal predation on fish populations, particularly Atlantic cod….Scientific research suggests that grey seal predation could account for much of the high natural mortality of cod in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence.” This study did not, however, investigate the possibility of several possible causes of the failure of the cod population to recover as rapidly as the DFO expected, including the reduction in the genetic pool and the effects of climate change. The study also did not explain the increase in the cod population around Sable Island, where the grey seal population has also increased.

The DFO propaganda continues in other ways, too, including continuing efforts 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.

Beater harp seal pup
Beater harp seal pup

Although the majority of Canadians oppose the seal hunt, and there have been numerous viable alternatives to the seal “harvest” (as the Canadian government likes to call it) 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…

Another reason for sealing that prevailed until the advent of Viagra was 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…”)

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