The Seal Deal

Only two weeks after Canada commanded the world stage to showcase what it means to be "Proudly Canadian,” the Harper government now proudly sends the world yet another message. On Monday, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea upped the quota for the country's much beleaguered seal hunt from 280,000 to 330,000 harp seals. If met, that would represent nearly five percent of the estimated North Atlantic harp seal population.

This pronouncement comes a week after members of the Canadian parliament publicly feasted on bacon-wrapped seal meat, clearly nose-thumbing the European Union for its boycott of Canada’s seal industry. Dramatically raising the seal quota now—on the same day that organized protests were being staged around the world—plays like more political theatre and makes questionable scientific or economic sense.

In defense of the controversial clubbing and shooting of harp, grey and hooded seals, Canada champions the right of the Inuit people to hunt seals for food and also points to "the importance of the sealing industry to… the economies of Canadian coastal communities.” No question, sealing is a sensitive challenge for the government, which must weigh issues of subsistence, traditional and modern day belief systems and struggling economies. According to Canada’s Globe and Mail, however, Shea also lifted a previous ban on personal use licenses, giving any “coastal Canadian” the right to kill up to six seals.

The practical implications of personal hunting are unclear. Does this mean that now mom and pop and the kids can join in? What demographic or economic base does this serve?

In a recent appearance on You Tube, Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to an opponent of the seal hunt, saying such oposition was "a minority view of among Canadians." Where does he get his statistic? A 2008 Environics poll commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that roughly six of every ten Canadians oppose the seal hunt, while a 2008 Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for CanWest News concluded that 52% of respondents opposed the hunt.

The pime minister also connected large scale commercial sealing, where taking seal pelts is the prime objective, with the smaller Inuit subsistence hunt, where older and larger seals are taken primarily for their meat. "Just because, you know, it’s only our Inuit people or a few other traditional communities doing sealing doesn’t mean you should be able to single them out and treat them differently than you would treat the cattle industry or any other industry," he said. Yet the EU ban exempts Inuit subsitence hunting and its small scale trade. It is the world's largest commercial seal hunt in Eastern Canada that is being targeted.

Mr. Harper maintained, "regulations put in place over the past generations have made this a very humane hunt." In a perfect world, maybe, but regulations alone don't render the hunt humane if those regulations are violated. Any number of recent videos can be found online, documenting the repeated clubbing of young seals as they hopelessly try to escape, suffering blow after blow until killed. Humane is simply not the word that comes to mind.

While it is perfectly legal to whack seal pups over the head during the hunt, it is a crime to witness or photograph these events within one half nautical mile without a permit, an offense punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The hunt is also an exception to Canadian law. It is otherwise illegal to disturb or interfere with any marine mammal, carrying a fine as high as $100,000.

Ironically, the seal quota is being raised when the global market for seal pelts has been significantly reduced by the EU boycott. Raising the quota amid shrinking demand will predicatbly drive down the value of seal products. At a meager fifteen dollars a pelt, this higher quota stands to make the venture less profitable for the industry and more costly for Canadian taxpayers, because the government promotes and indirectly subsidizes the sealing industry.

The whole quota issue may already be moot. Extremely low ice floes this year threaten the survival of infant seals and are bound to reduce the number of animals that can be taken. Sealers could travel further north to find more prey, but that's an expensive proposition. The market will ultimately shape the future of Canada’s sealing industry, while Mother Nature and climate change may prove the most efficient at thinning the seal population.


Update: April 1, 2010

Ian Austen reports in the New York Times that historically low ice floes off Eastern Canada threaten to significantly curtail this year's seal hunt.

"Nonetheless, seal pups are dying. Many drowned at birth after slipping or being tossed from small slivers of ice. Others survived, only to be crushed by moving ice or separated from their mothers. Those born on beaches or shore ice have fallen prey to coyotes and even bald eagles. The lack of ice also means that survivors will not have vital spots to rest when they head to sea."

Will somebody please forward this fine job of reporting to Prime Minister Harper and Gail Shea?!


A savage ritual

Few Canadian politicians lose any sleep over the cruelties of the seal hunt, or indeed give it more than a passing thought. Implicitly, it's assumed such suffering doesn't matter. Or if it does matter, it doesn't matter enough to put a stop to this savage and primeval ritual. The issue of unbelievable cruelty and exploitation merits only a “ho-hum.”  Then “ho-hum” becomes an outrage directed at animal welfare organizations who dare to show the world what Canada is doing to its wildlife.

re: A savage ritual

Thanks, Veritas. The degree to which animal rights advocates are vilified is bemusing.

At the heart of this debate is the larger issue: how Canada manages its vast resources. From the seal hunt in Newfoundland, to the disaster that is Alberta's Tar Sands, to rapacious forestry practices in BC and the ecological degradation wrought by that province's open net salmon farms, it can be argued that forward thinking is not being employed...

"Traditional" hunt

I wonder if the "traditional" hunts in the old days included the government providing transportation for the hunters. If not, it does remove the traditional label somewhat.

re: "Traditional" hunt

I don't know that the government has provided transportation, but they have employed coast guard ice breakers to enable the sealers (fisherman) to get to the seals. So, your point is relevant.

Seal Hunting

I'm glad you are writing about this. As with the atrocities of "The Cove," I just do not understand how our species can be so cruel.. Ugh! Knowledge is power, but it is depressing to learn about man's inhumanity to other living things. It's 2010, when will we Homo sapiens evolve? Thank you, Alison

Thank you

I had no idea of all the recent political maneuvering surrounding the seal hunts. But this is what kills me:

" is a crime to witness or photograph these events within one half nautical mile without a permit, an offense punishable by fine and/or imprisonment."

Wow. Just... wow.

Seal Hunt

Oy Canada !!!

Seals and Deals

It sounds like all of this is just one more indicator of a world gone awry. What's wrong with planting a few sharks in the area? The real problem will be arriving soon. As the oceans steadily absorb the abundant CO2, we'll see some interesting reverberations all the way up the food chain.

Seal Hunt

I just don't understand why they do this. Barbaric.

Seal hunting in Canada

I am amazed at the goings on to the north of us. This wild bit of conflicting government policy and overblown patriotism is unforgivable (like the bipartisanship in Washington,D.C. right now) Perhaps we had an insight into Canada with the recent Winter Olympic Games. Thanks! It's not often that I can get a concise piece of work that doesn't ramble - on the net these days.

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