The Canadian Seal Hunt, Uncovered!

By August 29, 2011 Ocean News

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.


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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.

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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.                    

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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;

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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.

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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. 

Global Opposition

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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.

Hmm…Your Thoughts?

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.

Take Action!

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.

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Rhys Toogood says:

    Obviously the author is fairly ignorant on the seal hunt and the gruesome facts about death.

    For the major hunts the initial insult to the seal is by a high powered rifle bullrt to the brain. In 99% of cases this will cause instant unconcious ness often before the seal is aware that a man is there. In an abatoire only 96% of animals are rendered unconcious by the first shot from the captive bolt pistol. For Halal or Kosher meat the animal is killed concious.

    The heart is stopped by bleading out. In an abatoire by cutting the animals throat, on the ice by severing two large arteries under the flipper.

    Probably what is a humane death and what is not is best left to experts, most of us don’t want to think about it. Foir instance in a judicial hanging although the spinal column will be severed in the initial drop, the heart will not stop beeting for another 15 minuets. Do you realy want to go there or will you take the word of the experts on what is humane and what is not.

  • ldonnelly says:

    Hi Rhys,
    I am sorry you are disappointed with my article, but I am happy that you are involved in the discussion. I was trying to provide an overview of what goes on, including the controversial bits. I understand not everyone will agree, nor does everyone have to. Yes, adults seals are shot in the head, as I mentioned. The clubbing is for young seals – which are the source of most controversy – not for the older seals (which yes, form the major part of the hunt). Perhaps this was not clear in the article. Personally, I don’t think that killing any animal for their pelt, meat, blubber, etc. is justified, no matter how you do it. I am by no means an expert on animal death practices – I just know how I feel about it. Unfortunately, I do not think anyone really knows what the animal goes through, so find it hard that we should even debate what is humane or not. Everyone has a different opinion, and I respect your views.
    Thanks for being involved in the discussion!

  • Rhys says:

    Hi Lauren,

    Thank you for the opportunity of putting the reverse view of the seal hunton line, not many sites allow this.

    First I will explain the moral values that I was given as a little boy my father. Never harm anything or anybody without a good reason. If you are obliged to destroy anything or harm someone do not take pleasure from the act. Therefore I only fish if I will eat what I catch, kill a slug if its eating my cabbage etc.

    Secondly I prefer to think of my lamb steak as coming from the supermarket in a package with a price tag. I am an adult, I know that the lamb is separated from its mother, forced onto a truck and driven to the slaughter house, that’s life, I know it happens, but I would rather not dwell on it. Other people better qualified than I have the job of seeing that the procedure is as humane as possible. I trust them to do their job properly.

    The major Seal hunt in Canada takes place at the Front. I live with Sealers as my neighbours during the summer months. I know them, I respect them, I judge them as men of high integrity who would not tell me lies. I have actually asked three of them independently the question, how often do you require a second shot, and after thinking about it, they all came up with the same answer, very impressive. The answer was half a percent better than a Norwegian Scientific Study, they shoot from closer so very believable.

    I am told that on the Front 100% of seals the initial Insult is a Military Power rifle shot across the head. Hunts like Hay Island, a club is used. The seals are on a rocky beach covered with snow. If a bullet hits a pebble of the wrong size it will explode like a hand grenade, rock fragments flying everywhere, apart from the danger to the rifleman, you could wound seals that where not the target. The Hay Island hunt is very minor and is more about controlling the number of seals, I doubt if the Sealers cover their expenses.

    The statement that generally the Hakapik is used is Wrong. The hakapik is considered humane because young seals have very thin skulls, it is ilegal to strike a seal over one year old with a hakapik. Sealers switched to rifles for baby seals in deference to public opinion some years ago. This is at some expense, to the hunters safety, one man lost a chunk of his hand when his rifle burst this year.

    I will explain the 3 step process, first the animal is shot in the head. This causes a wound like President Kennedy suffered when he was assassinated. If you remember JFK was pronounced dead some hours later in hospital. The wound had rendered him irreversibly unconscious, the same would happen to the Seal.

    The second step is to check that the animal is unconscious. This used to be by poking the animal in the eye and watching if it blinks. Some Sealers where squeamish about doing this, so the test now is to check if both hemispheres of the brain have been crushed. The side where the rifle bullet enters suffers little trauma, so the club is used to damage that lobe as well. The European Food Safety Report on sealing says that in effect if the animals brains have been blown out, there is no point in doing this, the Canadian Marine Mammal regulations require it, a bit of overkill perhaps.

    Finally the animal is bled out, which will stop the heart, the old fashioned sign of death.

    Seals are not skinned alive they have a swimming reflex, animals in the slaughter house kick with their rear legs called a running reflex. It is considered humane after the animal has been stunned with a captive bolt pistol, to open a trap door and let it fall to the floor below to have its throat cut. This is more humane than Kosher or Halal meat where the stunning process is not performed.

    The Harp seal maybe the most valuable, I don’t know. It by far and away the most numerous. Some seals hooded, ringed are not hunted at all because of small populations.

    In the past the Seal hunt was conducted by what the Americans call a Derby A competitive hunt where boats killid as many as they could before the quota was reached. Not surprisingly the Fisheries Officer had a difficult task knowing when the exact quota would be reached. Currently the hunting is done by quota so many seals per boat. To remove any temptation to speed things up and take short cuts, boats are limited to killing 400 per day. The DFO Carry over policy is explained on their website.

    Is it necessary, is it Morale? Where I did my sailing in the Wash in England, there is a Seal population of about 300, Seals follow boats because Fishermen throw them fish. The seal numbers are limited by distemper but going back about 20 years they where culled. In the Baltic there are 10,000 Seals, the Swedes and Estonians kill about 400 per year to keep the number constant and appease their fishermen.

    In Eastern Canada there are 9 million Seals increasing at 5% per year. Each seal consumes 5 Kilos of fish per day well over a tonne a year. Canadian Seals are eating a lot of fish.

    Morality, when I was a little boy in England we had food rationing, even bread. Rabbets where eating 5% of our cereals. When we where camping you would often see the farmer go out with his gun at dusk and hear a few bangs. A popular song of the period was Run Rabbet run run run, here comes the farmer with his gun, gun, gun. Was the farmer justified in shooting the bunnies, in my opinion he was. They where taking away from his livelihood. Its the same for fishermen, the Seals take away from their livelihood. I can see no difference Rabbet or Seal.

    Incidentaly if you are hungry and short of bread, the ends are more filling than the other slices. If you are hungry and know that a rabbet is eating one slice of every loaf, you are not keen on the rabbet having his share.

    The price of a pelt I am told has been $20 the last two years.

    Seal products include Omega 3 seal oil which is twice as effective at lowering blood pressure as omega 3’s from plants and fish. Different at the molecular level more easily absorbed Also includes DPA only otherwise available in human milk, good for clogged arteries. Omega 3 from fish contains toxins, the seal oil is processed using a sophisticated distillation process that removes nearly all of the toxins. Seal Heart valves are more elastic and durable than those from pigs or cows (Seals have very high blood pressure). It is likely that Seal Valves will double the ten years that a transplanted pig or cow heart valve lasts.

    Seal fur I cannot afford, but it is about the only fabric that is warm and waterproof, good for sailing gloves I imagine.

    Your misinformation has come from Animal Rights believers, IFAW, PETA and Sea Shepherd.. These groups do nothing for Animal Welfare the way that a pet rescue center would. They have not created animal reserve’s like the World Wildlife Fund does. In fact by annoying the Inuit they have made it very much more difficult for the WWF to persuade the Inuit to give up some territory in Isabella Bay to create a reserve for the Bow Headed Whale, a species with a population of about 5,000 and very much in need of a reserve with no human contact including Eco Tourist Whale Watchers.

    Animal Rights beliefs are about giving up mankind’s stewardship of animals and treating animals in an equal fashion to humans, sharing the planet with them. It sounds good, but is completely impracticable. Those who have thought it right through foresee a world population of humans of 25 million. I guess you will be one of the surplus 7 billion. You won’t live in a land of Milk and Honey, definitely no Milk that’s exploiting animals. You won’t kill animals for any reason, so Granny might well get eaten by the big bad wolf. Its like turning the clock back 30,000 years.

    Its the 9/11 anniversary. For years my country suffered terrorist bomb outrages by the IRA. People in North America generously supported Noraid a charity set up to help the Catholic Victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is widely believed that the money helped finance the IRA bombing campaign.

    SHAK Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty is an Animal Rights Terrorist Group that attacks people and property that work for or with the company Huntington Life Sciences, a company that performs research using animals, which is a no no for Animal Rights believers.
    Sea Shepherd has very close links in personnel with SHAK. PETA is suspected of being linked to animal rights atavists.

    There are no suspicions about IFAW, but IFAW has two subsidiaries, the Russian Marine Mammal Research Institute and the Canadian Marine Mammal Research Institute in Ontario. On the Internet Russian Scientists claim that they are paid $300 a month not to experiment on animals, by IFAW, that is pure Animal Rights, if true. The Canadian Marine Mammal Research Institute appears to do no research but allows people to sign themselves Director Canadian Marine Mammal Research Institute which is good propaganda. IFAW makes more money from donations to stop Seal Hunting than the Sealers do from hunting them. Whilst I support them for campaigning against Fox Hunting, killing animals for recreation is immoral to me as well. I do not support their Seal Hunt Campaign.

    I advocate that any body giving money to an animal rights organisation thinks very carefully about it. Could they be supporting an Animal Rights Terrorist group.

    You quoted the European parliament act. This is an outrage to the people of Europe intelligence.
    The only piece of Science mentioned in the act is the European Food Safety’s authorities 2007 report is where they wrongly attribute a conclusion to the Authorities Scientists they simply did not make in their report. You are a scientist, would you not be outraged if a conclusion, which is not actually true was attributed to your report? The rest of the act is pure animal rights rubbish opinions. No wonder they did not want a debate on the bill.


  • R Mulder says:

    Will there be any discussion on the upcoming “test” seal cull that is being proposed in eastern Canada? This upcoming cull seems to be more politically than scientifically motivated.
    There is some interesting information regarding the actual benefit of seals to ultimately benefit the fish stocks. Several scientists who have been doing these studies do not seem to be getting this information out to the public, largely due to slanted media on the east coast.
    Unfortunately the public in this case seems to be seal hating eastern Canadians. It is difficult to reason with groups that have such an ingrained dislike for seals.
    The seals were here pre-European contact and the fish stocks were unbelievable. It only makes sense that the seals were part of the food web, likely a critical one. I’ve heard the bogus argument that all the sharks kept them under control. Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark an east coast shark expert doesn’t buy this argument. He has stated that the shark stocks were never that plentiful in eastern Canada to accomplish this.
    The irony of this might be that the seals play an important role in the return of the fish stocks, and killing the seals, will seal their fate.

  • Common Sense says:

    The seal population ballooned when the Cod was just about fished out. From 3 million to 9 million without the 3 million shot by hunters over the years it would probably be more than 12 million now. Cod and seals are predators of the same species, capelin, herring even small cod because cod are cannibals. Very hard to find an argument that the seals increase in numbers was a result of easy pickings not having to share at the same table as the cod. Conversely its hard to find a reason why excluding a few Seals from the dining table will not help the cod stock recover.

    The Greenland Shark is a predator of seals, not a lot is known about them but with a lifespan of 200 years its hard to believe that they are prolific breeders. Expecting the Greenland Shark population to proliferate and control the seal population is going to take a very long time.

    The stupidity of it all is that the anti seal hunting campaigners having succeeded in virtually finishing off the seal hunt are now campaigning against the cull which is an inevitable consequence of their success. If they really wanted to protect seals they would be spending their millions trying to protect the Caspian Seal Population which is really having a bad time. But send me $10 to stop a man hitting a baby seal on the head with a stick gets millions of donations, send me $10 to set up a seal sanctuary in the Caspian Sea won’t get a dime.

  • Gil-Ann Wilder says:

    One of the cruelest acts of animal abuse ever! It must end….shame on you for allowing this to continue…..we animal activists will end this!

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