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An Introduction to the Canadian Seal Hunt

Whitecoat Harp Seal Pup

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 some years in which the Namibian Cape fur seal massacre has taken 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 and north of Prince Edward Island to give birth to their babies (one per mother).

Yellow jacket sealer clubbing - IFAW
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'

Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker escorting fishing vessels
Coast Guard icebreaker ship cutting path for fishing 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 may have little difficulty in reaching the seal herds. Sometimes, sealers can even walk to them from their trucks or drive up to them with their snowmobiles. Most of the time though, they take fishing vessels of various sizes and types to the ice flows with seal pups and either jump out of the boats and walk up to them or shoot the seal pups from the boats.

When the ice was too thick for many sealing boats to get through, Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker ships would shepherd sealers to the seal herds by breaking a path through the ice for them. In 2009, the Canadian Coast Guard established a new policy to stop providing this service to sealers as this was an unpopular subsidy for sealing.

Sealing boats stuck in ice
Sealing boats stuck in ice and Canadian Coast Guard helicopter to the rescue.

Aerial reconnaissance is used by the Canadian government to locate the seals (for census counts and population modeling), and this information is provided to sealers to help them find the herds..

Once sealers find the seals, the true horrific nature of this bizarre massacre 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) on their heads. When they beat these seal pups, they may be in groups so that the pups see each other being beaten but cannot get away since they cannot swim yet.

After clubbing the seals, the sealers 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.

Sealer killing harp seal pups in herd - HSUS - Brian Skerry
Sealer killing harp seal pups in herd. Photo: HSUS/Brian Skerry

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 will 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.

After concluding that the seal is dead, 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.

Sealer drags shot seal pup -HSUS 2014
Sealer drags shot seal pup back to boat. Photo: HSI 2014

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 subjected to clubbing on the head.

Sealer hooks shot seal pup - HSI 2015
Sealer hooks and drags injured seal pup into boat. Photo: HSI 2015

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.

The sealers skin the seal pups either on their boats, which then become soaked in blood, or on the ice floes. In addition to the skins, sealers sell the blubber of the seals, for use in seal oil capsules. This blubber is attached to the skin. Since the flesh of the seals has little monetary value (most people who have tried to eat it have found it distasteful), sealers dump the seal carcasses in the water.

In the past, sealers 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.

Sealer skinning seals
Sealer skinning seals

On the Front, where seals are usually shot first, many seal pups are 'struck and lost.' In other words, wounded seals 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). Sealers are not required to report these cases.

Almost all seals killed in the commercial slaughter are pups between 3 weeks and 3 months old. Some adults are also killed though. In 2017, 4,000 adult harp seals were killed for their blubber. In the past, before Viagra and other "ED" drugs, adult males were killed for their penis bones, which were sold to Asia as aphrodesiacs.

Read summaries of what happened in the seal 'hunt' each year since the second year of the million plus seal kill of 2003-2005.

Until the numbers dipped from the closing of markets in recent years, sealers would kill about 1/3 of the pups born in that year. This is the official number but does not include those seals that were 'struck and lost.' The seals killed by Canadian sealers must also be added to the seals who die in fishing nets and those who die from drowning due to a lack of sturdy sea ice. As global climate change makes the ice floes less reliable, this mortality is on the rise.

Seal carcass dumped - HSI 2016
Seal carcass dumped into water after skinning. Photo: HSI 2016

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 were 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.

Sealer skinning seals in dead pile - HSUS - Brian Skerry - 2008
Sealers skinning seal pups in pile of blood. Photo: HSUS / Brian Skery 2008

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.

Whitecoat dragged by sealer - Friends of Animals photo
Sealer dragging whitecoat seal pup after clubbing. Archive Photo by Friends of Animals, before ban on whitecoat killing in 1987.

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 subsistence 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 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
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 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 industry. 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
Vladimir Putin, stopped Russian sealing and harp 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 harp seal product imports. Since Russia imported about 95% of the finished products, this dealt a massive blow to the sealing industry. Mexico and Taiwan also banned seal product imports, further decreasing the market..

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.

For many years, harp seals were blamed for declining fish populations. But after spreading this propaganda until the majority of people in Newfoundland believed that harp seals were a big problem, the Canadian government began claiming that the seal 'hunt' was really a market-based hunt. In other words, as long as there was a market for seal products, the government would support sealing.

After many nations banned seal product imports across the globe, the DFO began once againto blame seals for declines in fish stocks or 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 Canadian fishermen still believe this propaganda.

Today 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 stubborn and ignorant sealers into believing that sealing is the only way they can earn a living for their families (much the same way the rich sealing families did to the uneducated poor "working sealers" for so many years) .

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...")

In 2012 and at least some years after this, with the ban by the Russian Federation on harp seal product imports in place, the Newfoundland provincial government ensured the survival of the industry by giving CAN$3.6 million 'loans' to the Norwegian seal skin processor, Carino, to buy pelts from sealers. The Newfoundland government has refused to provide proof that these loans have been fully repaid.

Three things are certain:

It's not about the meat.

Blood and seal carcasses on ice floe - IFAW
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 people 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 or Inuit people.

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. When Inuit kill seals, it is primarily for their meat, and adult seals are the usual targets. If they have excess pelts, they often sell or give them away in their own communities. Some Inuit may sell excess pelts for commercial gain, but this is by no means a major industry for the Inuit, nor does it compare to the commercial seal hunt of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Magdalen Islands of Quebec.

Nevertheless, propaganda conflating the commercial seal hunt with Inuit sealing has been on the rise since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The goal has been convincing the Canadian public that the Inuit will be harmed if commercial sealing ends. This is based on the claim that the few Inuit who engage in the commercial trade in seal pelts will make less money when seal pelts sell for less in the international markets. This claim ignores the fact that the Canadian government pays a fixed price to the Inuit for their excess pelts despite the market price.

The Canadian government has even 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.

Read more about Inuit sealing here.

 

And it's not about seal oil.

Seal oil capsules
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 prices paid for seal blubber.)

Though some in the industry try 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.

 

FAQ's

Visit these links for answers to commonly asked questions about the seal 'hunt'.

FAQ's

More FAQ's

 

Cape fur seal massacre - photo Charles Tjatindi 2009

Cape fur seal killing in Namibia. Photo: Charles Tjatindi, 2009.

Namibia's Cape fur seal slaughter

 

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 many years, there was only one government-licensed buyer of the dead seals, the Turkish-Australian furrier Hatem Yavuz.

Read more about this slaughter and how you can help end it here.

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