Case Study: Canadian Seal Hunt

Michael Williamson (
Mon, 18 Mar 1995 11:20:45

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Subject: Case Study: Canadian Seal Hunt
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----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Seal Hunting Conflict  Still Rages in Canada;
Government Expanding Annual Harvest
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
 IN THE GULF OF ST. LAWRENCE -- The white baby seal lifts his head, looks
around and yowls plaintively. Quickly, he gets what he is looking for. His
dark-coated mother, poking her head from the water through a hole in the
thick ice, gives him a reassuring nuzzle, just as members of her species
have done for millions of years.
     This particular maternal gesture, however, is greeted by a thoroughly
modern chorus of oohs, aahs, coos and shutter-clicks from a group of
orange-suited, wide-eyed city folk, brought here by a fleet of helicopters
standing just a few yards away. It's not just seals who revel in the sweet
joys of whelping season.
     The days when Canadian pelt-hunters bashed the skulls of baby harp
seals such as these are more than 10 years gone, but the war over seal
hunting rages on. Each year at this time, the International Fund for Animal
Welfare (IFAW), which almost single-handedly shut down the seal hunt here
more than a decade ago, flies dignitaries and journalists out to the ice
floes for a firsthand look at the soft-eyed creatures saved from the
hunter's club.
      At the same time, the government of Canada, and some very unhappy and
unemployed seal hunters, are searching for ways to revive the seal trade
without alienating world opinion.
     They see the need as particularly great this year because fish stocks
have declined so drastically -- in part, locals say, because so many seals
are eating them -- that former fishermen along the impoverished Atlantic
Coast need another way to make a living.
     This year, the Canadian government is offering a 15 cents-per-pound
subsidy for seal meat in the hopes of developing a market for the stuff, and
in addition to the regular professional hunt will allow amateurs to kill up
to six adult seals each when the annual hunt takes place later this month.
IFAW officials say the moves could lead to another round of confrontations
between hunters and "seal-huggers."
     "The government of Canada freely admits [it is] committed to expanding
the seal hunt threefold. This does not have the makings of a hunt seen
favorably in world opinion," said Thomas P. Moliterno, North American animal
welfare coordinator for IFAW.
       The now-defunct hunt for the whitecoats, as harp seal cubs are known
before they shed their baby fur during weaning, may have been the biggest
international public-relations disaster Canada has seen.
     For hundreds of years, men had been killing seals in the Gulf of St.
Lawrence and off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, the two spots in North
America where harp seals give birth on the ice after migrating south from
Arctic waters each year.
     The Inuit, or Eskimo, used seals for food and leather. Explorers after
them killed seals for oil used, like whale oil, in lamps. Then came the pelt
hunt, in which hunters killed the whitecoats with hooked clubs.
     Hunters preferred the clubs because neither the seals nor neighboring
hunters could get unnecessary holes in their hides.
     But the clubs looked even more brutal than guns, and in the 1970s
animal-welfare groups, equipped with helicopters and cameras, began bringing
in foreign politicians and journalists to record the annual spring hunt.
      Western civilization could not bear to see televised images of
baby-seal corpses bleeding onto the white snow in front of their mothers. In
1983, the European Community banned the import of pup-seal pelts; imports of
seal products had been prohibited by the United States since 1972.
     In 1987, Canada itself banned the killing of whitecoats under an IFAW
threat of further action, including an international boycott of all Canadian
fish products.
     Since then, Canadian seal hunters have been able to find a market for
only 50,000 or so adult seals each year, less than one-fifth of the
government quota they are allowed to kill.
     Many hunters are also financially suffering because of the loss of
their summer occupation. Sharp declines in the numbers of cod, a staple fish
for hundreds of years, have virtually ended commercial fishing off
Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and other Atlantic provinces. The cod fishing
grounds have been closed by the Canadian government in hopes stock will
      Although the cod was mainly done in by overfishing, it doesn't make
hunters feel any better that two components of seal diet are cod and the
cod's favorite food-fish, the capelin.
     There is disagreement about how much cod is eaten by harp seals, but
seal hunters and seal experts say harp seals are consuming at least some of
the very fish that the government does not allow fishermen to catch, slowing
the cod's revival.
     "We are to blame too. No one is clear on the fish. But seals harm the
effort the government is making to build cod stocks up," said Ghislain Cyr,
a seal hunter from the Madeleine Islands in the middle of the gulf.
     About 10 years ago, angry hunters on the Madeleines overturned and
damaged an IFAW helicopter, and relations have not improved much since then.
     "They make a lot of money off the whitecoats" in fund-raising, Cyr said
of IFAW. He also accused organization officials of hiding large increases in
the seal population by not escorting guests to the most heavily populated
     Whether harp seal numbers have risen is disputed, but the government
says they have. Jean-Eudes Hache, senior adviser for fisheries management
for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans said that from 1985 to
1990 the population of harp seals climbed from 2 million to 3.1 million.
More recent figures will be released later this spring.
     Canada hopes that its subsidy program will encourage the hunt and thus
stimulate processing companies to find new uses for seal products.
     To IFAW, the strategy doesn't make sense. Why try to create a market
just so more seals can be killed?
     "If you've got a subsidy, that's a sure sign there is no market,"
Moliterno said. IFAW will respond to the subsidy program with a
"high-profile, hard-hitting campaign," he said, declining to elaborate.
     The search for large markets for seal products is proceeding slowly. A
company in China ordered 50,000 seal carcasses last year -- a sale IFAW said
was only for seal penises, which are said to be used for aphrodisiac
purposes in Asia. The companies involved denied this.
     Meanwhile, the world beyond Newfoundland and the Madeleine Islands has
shown little interest in canned seal, seal pate, seal sausage and flipper
pot pie.
  To the uninitiated, canned seal tastes like a gamy, liverish beef stew
with fishy overtones. It smells like cat food, but one randomly selected
Toronto-based cat, when offered some, declined to eat it.