The Politics and Propaganda of the Seal Hunt
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is Canada's Central Propaganda Arm in Promoting Sealing
Sealer clubbing seal. (c) IFAW
The DFO manages the seal hunt (slaughter) (which it refers to as the 'seal fishery'). It also (mis)manages true commercial fisheries and recreational fisheries. In addition, it regulates indigenous fishing and sealing.
The DFO promulgates rules and regulations for sealers, such as tools and methods that can be used to kill seals, and is tasked with enforcing those rules. However, the DFO has failed to lay charges in hundreds of cases of violations of seal hunt regulations that were documented by independent observers (including those from IFAW and HSUS).
As the manager of fisheries, the DFO created and enforced regulations that eventually led to the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery. The destruction of this fishery has been a key factor in creating animosity among fishermen toward the seals, who have been scapegoated. The DFO has been cited for mismanagement of this and other fisheries. Read more about DFO failures here.
The DFO's scientific research has also been criticized. "It is no good at all looking at fin fish and ignoring the rest of the ecosystem; it is especially useless to look at cod and haddock as if they are not related to the rest of the ocean. That science failed. It failed miserably, not because the scientists did not do their job but because of the context, because of trying to operationalize a science that was not actually rooted in all of the things it needs to know." Read more about this critical look at the DFO here.
From IFAW: More Than 660 Probable Seal Abuses Caught on Tape
"IFAW has submitted video evidence of more than 660 probable violations of Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. These abuses include skinning or bleeding live seals, stockpiling dead and dying animals, dragging live seals across the ice with sharpened steel hooks and shooting seals and leaving them to suffer. To date, not a single charge has been laid in response."
It is in this context that the DFO has created a political and propaganda campaign to promote sealing. This campaign, paid for by Canadian taxpayers, involves DFO propaganda ministers, opinion polls of Canadians, pressures on members of Parliament, trade missions, and challenges to trade bans.
Do Canadians Support Sealing?
Whitecoat harp seal pup. (c) IFAW
According to a poll sponsored by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and another by the Seals and Sealing Network, most Canadians support the seal hunt. According to polls conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a large majority of Canadians oppose the seal hunt.
What accounts for the difference? The DFO poll asked the following two questions:
Using a scale of strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: Hunting animals for commercial purposes is an acceptable practice, when it is carried out in a humane manner?
Under the current federal policy, seal hunting is only permitted under the following conditions: no nursing seals are hunted, the hunt is done in a humane manner and quotas are set to ensure that seal populations are sustained. In general, would you say that you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the current policy?
The first question does not mention the seal hunt, and the second question includes conditions that do not exist in the real seal hunt.
In the Seals and Sealing poll, the respondents are asked whether they agree with the statement,
"All seal hunters should be allowed to hunt seals, but only if seal populations are not endangered and the animals do not suffer."
Since the video and eyewitness evidence shows that seals do suffer, and since harp seals, like all ice seals, are threatened by climate change, this survey shows that the 43% of respondents who selected this choice actually is oppposed to Canada's seal massacre.
On the other hand, the 2009 IFAW poll asked several questions, including:
Question: As you may know, there is currently a commercial seal hunt in Canada. Over the past four years more than one million seals have been hunted. Almost all of the seals killed were pups under three months of age. Do you support or oppose the commercial hunting of seals off Canada’s Atlantic coast? Would that be strongly or somewhat support/oppose?
Question: Currently, the Canadian government spends tax dollars to support the commercial seal hunt. They do this by sending delegations abroad to lobby foreign governments and promote the seal hunt, by using icebreakers to provide access to seal herds to sealers, and by developing and marketing new products made from seals. Given the current global economic crisis, do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the federal government using taxpayer dollars to support the commercial seal hunt?
We find that all these polls are asking leading questions, but the DFO and Seals and Sealing Network polls asked respondents if they agreed with statements about the seal hunt that are not true. Canadians may accept a theoretical seal hunt in which seals do not suffer, but they clearly do not accept killing seals in the way in which it is actually done.
What about the Inuit?
Nicole Camphaug shows off seal skin covered dress shoes for commercial markets. Photo: John van Dusen/CBC
Another aspect to government propaganda to bolster support for the seal "hunt" is the effort to confound the commercial seal slaughter with Inuit subsistence sealing.
The Inuit live in the far north of Canada, where agriculture is limited (though not impossible and in fact increasing). The Inuit traditionally engaged in fishing and hunting both land animals and marine mammals. Traditional Inuit sealing involves killing just the number of adult animals required to supply their needs and using all the animals' body parts.
Harpseals.org and other anti-sealing organizations have not campaigned against Inuit subsistence hunting of seals.
However, the Canadian government has used an underhanded tactic to promote commercial sealing by recruiting the Inuit to participate in this activity. The government's promotion of commercial sealing by the Inuit with funding and other resources is done discourage guilt-ridden Canadians from demanding an end to the slaughter of seals for fear that the livelihood of the Inuit will be jeopardized.
Canadians are guilt-ridden as a result of past government policies such as forcibly removing Inuit children from their homes and relocating them to boarding schools, where they were required to speak English only and abandon their culture.
Canadians should realize that commercial sealing is commercial sealing, whether it is done by decendents of Europeans or indigenous North Americans. They should understand that commercial sealing is not an Inuit tradition, but a sneaky attempt by the government to stifle criticism of the annual seal massacre.
Read more about the Inuit and this issue here.
Seals and Cod
For many years, in the 1990's and into the 21st century, the DFO spread propaganda all over the Maritimes, blaming the harp seals for the collapse of the cod fishery. This propaganda continued despite evidence from marine scientists, including DFO scientists, that the seals' diet consists of only about 3% cod and that seals also consume squid and other predators of cod.
Why scapegoat the seals? Because admitting that the real reason for the collapse of the cod fishery, overfishing during the second half of the 20th century, would be admitting abject failure on the part of the agency tasked with the management of the fisheries: the DFO. Instead of accepting blame, the DFO decided that the seals would make a convenient scapegoat as well as a source of income to replace some of the income lost when the cod fishery closed.
As DFO scientists began to openly contradict the government propaganda, DFO officials began to change their tune. Instead of claiming that the seals caused the collapse of the cod fishery, they began to claim that the seals were preventing the cod population from rebounding after the commercial fishery was shut down. Still, this claim was refuted by the DFO's own scientists, so finally, in 2005, the DFO began asserting that the seals did not cause the collapse of the cod fishery or prevent it from rebounding (though some government officials have continued to claim that the seals are affecting the recovery of the cod).
Unfortunately, the DFO has been much less diligent in correcting prior false propaganda than it was in spreading the propaganda in the first place. Consequently, most people in the sealing provinces still believe the old lies.
Read more about the seal-cod relationship here.
Political Action To End the Seal Slaughter
Sen. Mac Harb, Canada
One Canadian politician has stood out as a champion of the seals: Senator Mac Harb. In 2009, Sen. Harb witnessed the slaughter with IFAW observers. He said, "Continuing to defend the commercial seal hunt is not the answer.The government can’t go on burying its head in the sand and pretending everything is going to be okay. It is time to provide mechanisms to transition the few thousand individuals in sealing out of this declining industry and into jobs with more promising futures."
"I plan to go back next year and every year until this hunt ends to catalogue the wastefulness of this hunt. I have an obligation to the majority of Canadians who oppose the hunt to be a witness to this waste of tax-dollars and a vocal advocate for its swift conclusion," he added.
Bills to End the Seal Hunt in the Canadian Senate
Sen. Harb has taken a stand by introducing a bill into Canada's Senate: S-207 Ending the Commercial Seal Hunt in Canada
"On March 9, 2010 I re-introduced legislation in the Senate which, by amending The Fisheries Act, will effectively end the commercial seal hunt in Canada while respecting treaty obligations and protecting the rights of Canada’s aboriginal people," Sen. Harb said.
Read more about the "End the Commercial Seal Hunt in Canada S-207" Senate bill here.
In 2012, another bill was introduced by Harb, Senate Bill S-210. This time, another Senator seconded the motion, allowing the bill to go on to a debate. On October 16, 2012, Sen. Harb delivered a speech during the second reading of the bill, urging the Canadian Senate to end the seal hunt by passing this bill. Read the speech and debate that followed here.
Thus far the bill has not passed the Canadian Senate.
Senate Report on Culling Grey Seals
On October 23, 2012, the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans released a report that calls for massive cull of grey seals. Sen. Mac Harb protested the contents and conclusion of this report:
"As a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, I cannot support its latest report The sustainable management of grey seal populations: A path toward the recovery of cod and other groundfish stocks and have therefore voted against its conclusions and recommendations.
"I am very disappointed that the Committee has decided to ignore testimony including the Department of Fishery and Ocean’s own reports as well as research carried out by independent marine scientists – testimony which overwhelmingly concluded that a cull of grey seals cannot be scientifically justified. The Committee has also chosen to ignore the complexities of the marine ecosystem and the very definite risks and uncertainties inherent in a large scale seal cull.
"I cannot support recommendations that distinctly ignore the facts:
* Cod stocks are facing extinction due to overfishing by humans;
* Cod stocks are still being commercially fished in some zones despite being endangered and no recovery targets and timelines have been established;
* Cods stocks are in fact recovering in areas of the highest seal populations;
* Cod stocks were depressed due to increases in forage fish populations which are now decreasing due to seal predation;
* The latest scientific evidence concludes that large scale culling would have no net benefits for the fishery, and could, in fact, decrease the groundfish populations further;
* Proceeding with a cull could cause Canada to be in breach of the United Nations Environmental Protocols;
* Cull would have to be carried out in protected nature reserves (Sable Island National Park Reserve and Hay Island Nature Reserve).
"Canada has nothing to gain and much to lose should the government choose to follow the recommendations contained within the Report and proceed with an indefensible large scale cull of marine mammals. Taxpayers will be out millions of dollars. Science in this country will be, once again, put on the back burner as political games are played with Canada’s oceans management policies. And the domestic and international outcry will further erode Canada’s reputation as a responsible steward of our oceans.
"I therefore call on the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to abandon any proposals for a seal cull and to work with the scientific staff at DFO to meet Canada’s national and international commitments to establish sustainable ocean management practices."