Why Does the Annual Harp Seal Slaughter Continue?

By Genevieve Cottraux

The Canadian seal slaughter began off the coast of Newfoundland this year on March 28th.  This is two weeks earlier than usually allowed, as climate change is affecting the seal population.  With disappearing ice, Canadian seal hunters are worried that there will be fewer seal pups to hunt, so the Canadian government has allowed the killing of pups as young as 4 weeks this year instead of the usual 6.

Harp seal pup – Image by Matthieu Godbout (Wikimedia Commons)

Seal hunting can actually take place year round in Canada, but since the most desirable targets of hunters are baby harp seals, wanted for their white fur, the big hunt is in the spring during whelping season.  Climate change is also altering the way hunters slaughter the pups: the sea ice is breaking up earlier, thus sealers are more often resorting to long distance shooting, which leads to high wounding rates.  Seals are also killed by clubbing with a hakapik (a wooden staff with a hook at the end), and are sometimes skinned alive.  The pups are often killed in front of their mothers.

Hakapiks in Norway (Wikimedia Commons)

The quota for the kill has increased, doubling from 1977 to 400,000 seals a year, and the Canadian government continues to subsidize the hunt with taxpayer money, as much as $2.5 million a year.  This is despite a decreased demand for seal products as more countries place bans on their import.  The kill is usually closer to 50,000 seals.  The cost to the Canadian government is 5 times that of the export income generated.  It is also reported that an estimated $10 million was spent in fighting the European Union ban.  The money spent on the seal hunt could easily be redirected to exploring economic alternatives for the Eastern coastal communities.  The Magdalen Islands, one of Canada’s seal hunting areas, now generates more money with seal watching than seal hunting.

Although the disappearance of the ice and lower numbers of seals is bad news for everyone concerned and for the planet, the good news is that the outcry against the hunt continues to grow.  Switzerland has joined the growing list of countries making it illegal to import seal-derived products.  Other countries include the United States, Russia, and the European Union member states.  There are exceptions to the ban for products from hunting by the Canadian Inuit.  The indigenous Inuit hunt in the Arctic is separate from the commercial hunt in Eastern Canada.

Writing for National Geographic, Jani Actman questions why the seal hunt continues when the demand for seal-derived products has declined and opposition to the hunt grows:

Today, though, the Canadian seal industry looks like a shell of its former lucrative self.  Decades of bad publicity and campaigns to end the slaughter have taken a toll.  Last year sealing generated only $1.6 million in sales, down from $34 million in 2006, according to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  That year, 5,600 sealers participated in the hunt; now there may be no more than a few hundred. . . . In 2006 fur made up $16.4 million of the $18 million worth of seal products Canada exported.  Preliminary data from the Canadian government shows that sales of all seal products overseas plummeted to less than $1 million last year.

Fishermen justify the hunt on the grounds that the seals eat the collapsing cod populations, but cod in reality is only a small part of the seals’ diet, and some place the blame for the cod decline on overfishing by humans, not by seals.  The cultural and economic importance of the hunt is cited by the Canadian government as a reason to continue, with coastal communities dependent on fishing and hunting.  However, the Humane Society estimates that fewer than 6,000 fishermen, less than 1% of the provincial population, participate in the hunt.  In Norway, subsidies for seal hunting ended in 2015.  The last Norwegian seal-hunting boat, the Havsel, will now be going out to the Arctic for another disputed industry—oil and gas.

The combination of the exploitation of the seals in the commercial hunt with the effects of climate change threatens the survival of the seals.  They are dependent on the ice floes for stable birthing platforms.  The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that in 2010, “90 percent of harp seal pups born in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are thought to have died due to lack of ice before Canada’s commercial seal hunt even began.  Despite this enormous loss, the Canadian government allowed the seal hunt to proceed.”

Activists are petitioning Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt the seal hunt on ethical and economic grounds.  Trudeau supports many progressive social issues.  This is an opportunity for him to take a compassionate lead, yet the government, at the urging of seal product processor PhocaLux International, opened the hunt early, “violat[ing] the spirit of marine mammal regulations . . .”

The Animal Protection Party of Canada, formerly the Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada, is vocal in its opposition to the seal hunt.  Humane Voters Canada, a project of the Animal Justice Canada Legislative Fund, works to “mobilize public concern for the welfare of animals into effective political engagement and action.”  The Humane Party is the first political party in the United States committed to rights for all animals and humane values, supporting the end of the seal hunt as well as provisions for a sustainable and prosperous economy.

Harp seal mother and her pup, in Greenland (Wikimedia Commons)