An Introduction to the Canadian Seal Hunt
Harp 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 (with the exception of a few years in which the Namibian Cape fur seal massacre took more lives.).
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.
Sealer about to strike seal pup. (c) IFAW
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), a few hundred to a few thousand Canadian fishermen (almost all 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 tens to hundreds of thousands of harp seals. About 95% of the seals killed in the commercial seal 'hunt' are 3 weeks to 3 months old.
The Harsh Reality of the 'Hunt'
Coast Guard icebreaker ship cutting path for sealing boats.
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 or smaller boats to close or distant ice flows, then getting out of the boats and walking to them, or shooting seals from the 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 by the Canadian government 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 on the ice and then club them with 'hakapiks' (long sticks with a hooked blade at one end). After clubbing the seals, they are supposed to check whether the seal pup is dead before skinning the seal. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) prescribes the methods.
Previously, sealers were instructed to perform the 'blinking-eye' test, checking whether the seals blink, before skinning them. In 2008, the DFO set new standards for sealers to follow when killing seals. The DFO now instructs sealers to palpate the seal's skull with an object (such as a rifle or hakapik) to assess whether it has been fatally crushed before proceeding to bleed and then skin the seal. So this means that, after clubbing the seal pup, the sealer with prod the seal on the head with a pole or hook or rifle barrel. This crude method of 'palpation' is intended to enable the sealer to determine whether the seal is alive or conscious. And if the seal is still conscious, well, one can image how that would feel.
Then sealers are required to bleed the seals by severing the two axillary arteries located beneath the front flippers. They are supposed to allow a minimum of one minute to pass before skinning the seals. In order to instruct sealers on the new standards, the Canadian Sealers Association in 2009, sent individuals around Newfoundland with an instructional video a few weeks before the start of the hunt. Training was voluntary. Finally, in 2014, the DFO is requiring that sealers be trained on this process prior to killing seals.
A sealer shoots a harp seal pup on the Front. Photo: S. Cook/IFAW.
In the second phase of the seal hunt, on the Front, in the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, seals are more mobile and better 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 typically get out of the boat and club the seal, if the ice floe is sturdy enough for them to walk on. If not, despite regulations against hooking conscious seals, they have been videotaped hooking wounded seals in the mouth and dragging them on the boat this way. Once on the boat, with a gunshot wound somewhere in the body and a bloody gash in the mouth, the seal is then subject to clubbing on the head.
Video accounts have shown sealers failing to ensure that the seal pup is dead before moving on to strike other seals in the vicinity, before hauling them onto the boat with a hook in the mouth, or even before skinning them. To see these videos, please visit ifaw.org and hsus.org.
On the Front, another issue is the seals who are 'struck and lost'. In other words, wounded seals who escape into the water. In that case, the seal likely dies in the water from the gunshot wound(s) and may never be recovered (or counted towards the quota).
Sealer skinning seals
Nowadays, over 100 adults are typically killed as part of the commercial slaughter. In the past, before Viagra, adult males were killed for their penis bones, which were sold to Asia as aphrodesiacs.
In the past, sealers also kept some of the carcasses to sell for use in pet food or mink farms. However, when minks were fed harp seal flesh, they became diseased with 'foot pad necrosis' and failed to breed. Today, almost all the carcasses are left on the ice or dumped.
Until the numbers dipped from the closing of markets in recent years, sealers would kill about 1/3 of the pups born. This is the official number but 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 climate change makes the ice floes less reliable, this mortality is on the rise.
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.
Sealing boats stuck in ice and Canadian Coast Guard helicopter to the 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 British families earned immense wealth and profits from the dangerous and bloody work. The average sealer was an exploited laborer. In modern times, the captains of sealing boats (and the seal skin processors) are the real 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 or read the book "Of Men and Seals" by James E. Candow (published by the Canadian government in 1989).
Seal skin coats
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 in 1983 and the boycott of Canadian seafood in Britain (1984-5) 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 (until minks developed foot pad necrosis from this - see above), and a few specialty sausage brands.
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 allowing sealers to kill seals once they started to molt. At this point, they are called 'ragged jackets' or 'raggedy jackets'; and, once they finish molting (after a few weeks), they are known as 'beaters'.The markets for their pelts were bolstered, and the intense killing resumed.
Vladimir Putin, stopped Russian sealing and seal product imports
In 2009, the European Union expanded the seal pelt import ban to include all seal products, from seals of any age and species. This became law in 2010. The Canadian government, the Canadian fur industry, and Canadian sealers, including the exempt Inuit sealers, are fighting this ban. Thus far, the efforts of Canada to overturn the EU ban have failed. The European General Court threw out a court challenge to the EU seal product import ban by Canada's largest Inuit group in 2011. Almost the same group brought almost the same case to the court again. In 2013, the EU General Court once again threw out the case.
In 2011, the Russian Federation banned seal product imports. Since Russia imported about 95% of the finished products, this dealt a massive blow to the sealing industry.
Canada and Norway brought a case before the World Trade Organization (WTO) in an effort to overturn the EU ban. The WTO ruled on this complaint on November 25, 2013. The ruling gave the EU a green light to maintain the ban.
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.
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
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
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
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
As of 2012, with the ban by the Russian Federation on seal product imports in place, the Newfoundland provincial government has fully subsidized the industry by giving CAN$3.6 million 'loans' to the Norwegian seal skin processor, Carino, to buy pelts from sealers.
Three things are certain:
It's not about the meat.
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.
It's not about subsistance.
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 are not restricted 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 among the masses. 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.
Most of the seal oil capsules that are sold outside Canada go to Asia. Some have been found in Asian groceries in the U.S., and Asian-owned mail-order/internet suppliers, where they are illegal.
So, although seal oil capsules are a significant source of (often illegal) revenue for some Asian companies, the demand for the blubber of harp seal pups (or Cape fur seal pups) does not explain the continued killing of tens of thousands of these animals in Canada and in Namibia.
Visit these links for answers to commonly asked questions about the seal 'hunt'.
Namibia's Cape fur seal slaughter
Cape fur seal killing in Namibia. Photo: Charles Tjatindi, 2009.
Each year, a small number of Namibians round up and club about 80,000 Cape fur seal pups and 6,000 Cape fur seal bulls in a brutal massacre that disrupts a seal rookery.
In most years, there is only one government-licensed buyer of the dead seals. The buyer in recent years has been the Turkish-Australian Hatem Yavuz.
Read more about this slaughter and how you can help end it here.