The annual East Coast seal harvest began today in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, despite criticisms from animal rights groups that it is unnecessary and uneconomical because the demand for seal products is down.
Hunters are permitted to kill 275, 000 harp and hooded seals this year, the same amount of allowable kills over the each of the past five years. Governments say that number is sustainable, while scientists are split. The eastern seal hunt has been politically and scientifically contentious over the past two decades, and a flood of scientific information has been released on both sides of the debate over whether it is humane and sustainable.
The hunt is estimated by governments to bring $12 million to the Canadian economy each year. But the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says the hunt's value has been exaggerated and that after subtracting government subsidies, it is worth about $2 million. The hunt has relied heavily on subsidies in recent years due to declining demand for seal products.
Seal hunting is gruelling work, involving much physical labour, danger of falling through unreliable ice pans, messily killing and skinning seals and very little financial compensation. Until last year, the federal government provided a direct seal meat subsidy to seal hunters, many of whom rely on seasonal income from the hunt. Both provincial and federal governments support the hunt indirectly by funding businesses that use seal products and hides and giving job grant money to workers in the seal industry. The Coast Guard of Canada supports the hunt by breaking ice floes with their ships and spotting seals from helicopters that are supposed to be monitoring the hunt. Many critics also say the high kill quotas are a stop-gap attempt to bring back the now-depleted eastern cod stocks, which seals feed on.
The anti-sealing campaign
"Our argument is not about whether or not the hunt is pretty," said Rick Smith, Canadian International Fund for Animal Welfare Director.
"We argue that the hunt is carried out in a way the wouldn't be acceptable-for humane, economic and sustainability reasons-in any other animal industry or hunt in Canada."
Smith said that many Canadians would be appalled if they realized what their tax dollars were supporting. He said his group hopes the government takes a more active role in regulating the industry.
"All the blood on the ice isn't the point," said Smith, who holds a doctorate in seal biology. "There's a serious level of tolerance for inhumane acts in this industry."
The ice conditions are bad this year, said Smith, which means hunters will have to rely on shooting the seals then hooking them into the boat. Smith estimates that for every seal that is killed and captured by this method, another is maimed but gets away, and dies soon after. He worries that these numbers aren't reflected in the numbers which hunters report, which could skew population projections.
But government officials say hunting practices have improved over the past decades and that the hunt is closely monitored.
"After 25 years in the spotlight there's very little controversy anymore," said Roger Simon, the area manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Simon said the allowable kill numbers are set at a sustainable quota each year based on estimates of seal populations and scientific study. He said fisheries officers monitor activity on the ice.
"Rules about humane killing practices have been put into place and there's no question that the numbers are sustainable," said Simon.
Government say the hunt is humane and that they have enough information to keep seal populations healthy, and to not allow a similar disaster seen in the cod overfishing debacle. But IFAW disagrees. Each year they mobilize a huge campaign based in Charlottetown to monitor the hunt. Over the past few hunts, the environmentalist group has utilized some top-of-the-line technology.
Each morning a scout plane flies out over the gulf to search for sealing ships. As soon as the ships are deployed, IFAW sends a press release to major media outlets all over the world, alerting them that the hunt has begun. During the hunt the environmentalist group monitors with two helicopters. They offer journalists free trips to the floes, decking them out in survival suits, to capture the hunt on film. Affixed to one of the helicopters is a $350,000 video camera powerful enough to read what brand of cigarette the hunters are smoking, from over 1000 feet away. (It's the same technology that was previously only available to the military, but is now used in Nascar races and golf tournaments. One camera operator with the group this year just finished a stint in Australia working on the Survivor television series. Given that he knows the finalist, he's liable for up to $5 million in damages, if he were to let the secret out. They're betting on that stuff in Vegas).
Each day the camera captures hours of footage, and is gone over in tedious detail by experts looking for hunt violations. At the end of the hunt each year IFAW produces videotapes it says prove the hunt is cruel and poorly regulated. The group gives government officials hours of tape, documenting what they say is more than 100 violations of marine mammal regulations and the Criminal Code. The footage shows seals clubbed but not killed until later, seals floundering helpless in blood clouded water and seals being skinned alive.
Simon admits IFAW catches many violations each year, but he said he isn't too concerned.
"There's not 100 per cent compliance on anything," he said. "The things we see on tape are the exceptions and not the rule."
The Sealers talk
According to the Canadian Sealers Association (CSA), the national group representing sealers, hunters comply with regulations very closely and work with federal and provincial governments to ensure the quotas are sustainable and hunters are getting a fair price for their catch.
"For the past fifteen years, we have examined our industry and made concessions and changes designed to continuously improve what we do," said Tina Fagan, CSA executive director. She said her group provides a voluntary training program for sealers teaching the humane method to kill. The CSA recently received a $50,000 grant from the Newfoundland government, allowing it to remain active.
Under Canadian law, seals are considered the same as fish, which doesn't allow them much protection or respect from DFO officials, politicians or hunters. Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has said he will review the Marine Mammal Regulations later this year, in an effort to make them more effective and relevant.
Tomorrow: On the Ice.
Darren Stewart has a fine, big hotel room, paid for by the good folks at IFAW. Those good folks.