Summer is coming to an end, and since the fall season in Canada lasts about two weeks, that means winter is fast approaching! Mid-November marks the beginning of the Canadian seal hunt season (or slaughter, depending on your views), which runs until mid-May, with most of the sealing happening in late March and early April. It is a highly controversial issue, yet remains part of our Canadian history.
Why are seals killed?
Historically, seals have been used to support the livelihoods of people in remote Canadian villages for their meat, pelts (clothing) and oils. Nowadays, seals aren’t only killed for subsistence purposes, but mostly for commercial purposes. Seal blubber (oil) is generally exported and processed into machinery lubricants, cosmetics, and dietary supplements. The pelts are generally used to make clothes, from handbags to jackets, belts and boots. While the meat isn’t as economically important, it is still sold and packaged as steaks, sausages – even pie filling! Today, sealing remains an important source of economic activity for thousands of people in remote communities, making up 25-35% of their annual income. In addition, seal clubbing may be regarded as ‘pest control’, since seals eat Atlantic cod, and their supplies are on the verge of collapse.
The Canadian seal hunt is considered to be the largest mass slaughterof marine mammals in the world. Every year, the Canadian government releases a quota for the number of seals to be killed. In 2010, that number was 270,000. Wooden clubs with a hammer head and a metal hook on the end – or hakapiks – are generally used to kill young seals by means of a sharp blow to the head. Hakapiks are used since they are considered to cause a quick and efficient death and do not damage the animal’s pelt. For older seals, it is more common to use a gun, since they move quicker than young seals and so it is hard to get close enough to club them.
The Royal Commission on Seals and the Sealing Industry in Canada claims that since there is an absence of “preslaughter stress” (aka the seals don’t know what’s coming to them), clubbing is a humane activity. The Commission points out the fact that a majority of Canadians support the meat industry and slaughterhouses, which are (arguably) less humane.
Killing young seals is obviously a controversial topic for humane reasons, as sealers walk up to the defenseless animals and bash them on the head. Young harp seals are the onesmost targeted, since they provide the most valuable pelts. Most opponents question how one can so viciously attack a defenseless animal. It is unfair, and plain cruel.
While images of amazingly cute newborn harp seals (whitecoats) are all over the Internet, it is actually illegal in Canada to hunt them. However, many organizations claim that this law is not respected, and newborn seals are killed by the hundreds every year.
Industry regulations are also controversial. According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there is a 3-step “science-based approach” to kill seals:
1) Striking the animal on the head;
2) Checking the skull to ensure that it has been properly crushed and the animal is dead;
3) Bleeding the seal for a minimum of 1 minute before skinning the animal to ensure that the seal is dead. (WAIT – wasn’t the seal supposed to be dead at Step 2?!).
In addition, thought quotas exist for the seal hunt every year, it is common for catches to exceed the recommended amount if the previous year saw below-quota catches. Thus, Canadian “guidelines” leave many people wondering just how regulated the industry truly is.
Much of the controversy of the seal hunt also surrounds the fact that many seals are in fact still alive when they are skinned. The Canadian government strongly refutes this claim, and goes on to say that seals moving around while being skinned is due to seals’ after-death reflexes, much like that of chickens who still move around after having their heads cut off. However, many organization (eg. Sea Shepherd and PETA) have documented images and video of animals being improperly clubbed and skinned before they are dead. Sealers also fail to check the skull most oftentimes, assuming the seals are dead when they are not.
Last year, the European Union decided to ban almost all seal products coming from Canada because they believed the practice to be “inherently inhumane”. The Canadian government is trying to have the ban lifted, as they claim it is hurting the livelihoods of thousands of Canadians. While the Canadian government claims the seal hunt is economically important, seal pelts are actually at an all-time market low. Last year, pelts sold for around $14 a piece, which is a far cry from the $100/pelt prices in 2006. With the market for seal products dropping so drastically, it is questionable why this practice continues. In addition, the products made from seals are mostly vanity and luxury items – highly unessential and hard to justify. It is no longer just hippies and animal rights activists who are opposing the Canadian seal hunt.
What do you think about the Canadian seal hunt? Is it a necessary part of our economy, and a part of our Canadian cultural heritage? Or, is it an unnescessary, outtdated practice that exists largely for vanity purposes? Are we being too critical of this industry? Do we have a double-standard?
Call me a sucker for images of cute, cuddly animals, but I can’t support the Canadian sealing industry. I do acknowledge that it is part of our heritage, but it is no longer done as a means of survival and so, in my opinion, it is unnecesary. While I agree that Canadians have a double standard, I wouldn’t agree that it justifies what is regarded as the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals in the world.
If you oppose this industry too, you can take action. For every click on the link below, sponsors will make a donation. You can do this once a day, everyday!
The Sea Shepherd also has many other tips and advocacy outlets to oppose the Canadian seal hunt, from writing letters to your local politicians to being an “eco-spy”! Check it out here:
About the Author
Lauren Donnelly earned her B.Sc in Biology and International Development Studies from Dalhousie University and her M.Sc. in Integrated Water Resources Management from McGill University. She has vast work experience, most recently working in capacity building, climate change and ocean conservation in Jamaica. Lauren enjoys discussing and debating environmental issues, and translating scientific information for non-scientists.