What Next for Canada's Hunted Seals?
NOTE: This article cites, at note 2, a press release from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), dated 2001, that quotes Canadian Director Rick Smith. Rick Smith is IFAW's former country director for Canada. Currently holding the post is Olivier Bonnet.
It’s autumn 2005. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, Whole Foods Market and other multinational players, are about to sit down with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to discuss the next plan to attack Newfoundland seals. Are these corporations telling you what they’re agreeing to — and why?
Before the Europeans landed in North America, at least 24 million seals lived off Canada’s east coast, in balance with other marine animals. Today, less than a fourth of the seal population remains. No matter. Canada’s government urges us to believe that there are too many seals.
Canada’s commercial seal hunt is the world’s largest organized kill of marine mammals, and it’s been running for decades. Under Canada's most recent three-year seal management plan, which rose to a crescendo this past spring, nearly a million seals were shot or bludgeoned.
The scenes are notorious: The might of a nation lifting a spiked club against small, playful pups. We’ve heard the question many times since the 1960s, when Friends of Animals began actively opposing the seal hunt. What allows Canada’s globally condemned seal hunt to just keep going on and on?
Let’s begin with the Canadian public’s own acceptance of the hunt. Why isn’t there more Canadian opposition to it?
A survey conducted by the Environics Research Group identified several factors that would persuade Canadian hunt opponents to change their views and support it.
Canadians might agree to the hunt, for example, if it is seen as preventing a glut of seals and ensuring enough fish for Canadian industry; or if it’s deemed humane; if infant nursing seals are spared; or if it can be carried out in a way that does not diminish Canada's image abroad.
So Canada's Department of Oceans and Fisheries (known as the “DFO”) makes a show of attention to these factors. The Department calls them “persuadables” — that is, useful bases for claims intended to persuade the Canadian public to accept the killing.
Just as the government does, the welfare industry wants to regulate the killing. Rick Smith, Canadian Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (“IFAW”), said: “To even contemplate a return to the unregulated killing of hooded seal pups is to invite an international backlash of immense proportions. No other major hunt in Canada concentrates on such young animals…”
Killing newborn “whitecoat” seals has been illegal in Canada since 1987. Yet once the pups start shedding their white coats, they can legally be killed. When the first grey hair appears, a seal, as early as 12 days old, becomes a “ragged-jacket.” And although these youngsters are still with their mothers and virtually helpless as the whitecoats, they now can be shot for commercial purposes.
Because the government — and, ironically, the welfare advocates — focus so much attention on making minor reforms to the rules, the Canadian and global media reports have been distracted from the millions of hapless seals whose lives have been taken in the merciless name of commerce.
Where The Bodies Go — and How
The main commercial project involved is the global fashion industry. And nowadays, edible seal oil capsules are touted for the health-promoting properties of their Omega 3 content — never mind that Omega 3 is easily obtained from flax seed oil. Then there’s the seal meat, most often used to feed minks and foxes and other animals whose own pelts will be sold.
And Canadians underwrite all of it.
The Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment reports that Canadian tax dollars provided the hunt with more than $20 million in subsidies between 1995 and 2001. The money went into seal processing plants, to promote the seal industry in Norway and beyond, and to research and promote global commercial uses and trends. In 1999, for example, the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency subsidized four seal fur and skin fashion shows in conjunction with the Canadian Fur Institute.
Needless to say, all that promoting has lasting impacts. And although the DFO insists that government subsidies to the hunt were discontinued in 2001, this is a technicality at best, and arguably it’s just plain misleading. In fact, the government continues to deploy Coast Guard help for breaking ice for boats, to pay for tracking seal herd movements for hunters, to send aerial rescue teams and weather reports, and to keep protests at a distance. And in 2004, government aid supported the opening of a plant in Unamen Shipu, Québec to specialize in the mechanical fat removal from seal skins.
What’s Next for Seals?
After the recent three-year killing period that annihilated nearly a million seals, Canadian officials say the seal population is still 5.9 million, and that large-scale hunting will be allowed to continue until the number of harp seals falls to 3.85 million.
To facilitate the next round of slaughter, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has announced an autumn 2005 Seal Forum. Participants will devise a new multi-year plan for continuing the mass killing from 2006 on. Or, as the DFO puts it, the Forum will “provide stakeholders with the opportunity to provide input on various scenarios to manage the seal hunt in the future.”
The “stakeholders” include a range of groups with an interest in touting their participation, including animal welfare organizations, the World Wildlife Fund, and Whole Foods Markets. The role of animal protection groups might not be what most people assume.
The Rise of an Anti-Sealing Industry
Ray Guy, a writer living in St. John's who arrived at the killing scene as part of a government move to promote it, looked at the specks of life along the bleak, icy coast and mused: “I think if anything, or anyone, persists in a place like this, it is passing sinful to trouble them further.”
But, as we know, the seals have been troubled further. And the trouble continues. Why? In an article written for Canadian Geographic, Guy suggested that a key reason involves the role of seal protests as just another part of the business. Guy points out that the anti-hunt campaign run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, with its hustle-bustle and its helicopters, is “critical to its image, if no longer to its business success.” Guy asks: “Do the helicopters signal, more than anything else, entrenched interests?”
Although the kill was on a downward trajectory 30 years ago, instead of being phased out it split into three industries, Guy explains: the Norway fur fashion hub, the “pro-sealing industry subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer;” and the “anti-sealing industry dominated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.”
By the early 1970’s, Guy recalls, IFAW was portraying coastal Canadians as barbarians. The fluffy newborn seal became a symbol whose killers were “thoroughly demonized.” This persists, although it’s the government that encourages the kill.
And the most eloquent and bitter condemnation of the kill might well be the chronicle of one of the workers. In Over The Side, Mickey, Newfoundlander Michael Dwyer recalls a 1997 assignment on the ice with a crew of eight that, for sometimes less than $12 a day, entailed “placing one’s face into the cloud of pungent, warm steam that rises from the blood-dripping conglomerate of entrails that could weigh sixty repulsive pounds.”
“It is, in every sense of the word,” wrote Dwyer, “bloody, backbreaking, repulsive, revolting, gory work…”
Newfoundland fisheries minister John Efford pronounced Dwyer’s book “a load of whining crap.”
Efford blamed seals for eating up the cod, thus causing young Newfoundlanders to leave coastal villages and seek their fortune elsewhere. In 1998, in the provincial House of Assembly, Efford declared: “I would like to see the six million seals or whatever number is out there, killed and sold, or destroyed or burned. I do not care what happens to them. The more they kill the better I will love it.”
Activists, too, have pitted some marine animals against others, threatening Canada's $1.5-billion fish export industry. It goes something like this: Stop killing seals or we’ll stop eating every other marine animal exported from Canada.
The ploy gets the activist groups meaningless “victories” to flaunt before their donors. The government agrees to a constant flow of legal rules to make the seal hunt supposedly more humane, but in the trade-off, the government enacts crushing provisions that keep media well away from the killing scenes. One couldn’t invent a better way to keep the seal hunt going.
IFAW spends big bucks on its seal-watching campaigns. The group has recruited celebrity signatories for a public anti-hunt petition: people such as Margot Kidder, William Shatner, and Clayton Ruby. Ruby, a high-profile lawyer, regularly represents IFAW over the seal issue by calling, from time to time, for tweaks to the regulations. And if you think IFAW’s lawyers take an anti-hunting stance, think again. Ruby asserts that “ethical hunting and humane treatment are an essential part of our wildlife law.” And even as the much-vaunted petition made its rounds, Rick Smith, director of IFAW-Canada, asked Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Minister to “ignore irresponsible calls for a seal cull and instead decrease next year’s harp seal kill-quota to bring this hunt back to a sustainable level.”
IFAW also commented on the proposed amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations. Again, IFAW’s submission focused on “sustainability,” opining that “the number of animals killed is one of the most serious management questions regarding the commercial seal hunt,” asking that “sealers pass a marksmanship test every two years,” and calling for a larger regulatory enforcement budget. The Regulations were recently clarified so that hunters must poke seals’ eyes to ensure they’re dead before skinning them. On that score, Ruby, on behalf of IFAW, wrote:
We support this proposal. It must be clear that once a seal has been struck, sealers must promptly confirm the animal’s death by administering the blinking eye reflex test before skinning or bleeding or otherwise cutting open the seal. It goes without saying that by ensuring that the seal is dead before moving to skin or bleed the animal, suffering will be limited.
IFAW clearly wishes to be seen as having a role in policing the kill. Before the past season’s hunt, IFAW had already filmed over 600 welfare violations at the whelping grounds — a bizarre practice suggesting that the entire event is something other than what it really is: one long welfare violation.
“Reporters who have covered the story for three decades,” writes Ray Guy, “see it as a choreographed event, with IFAW's helicopters carrying celebrities and foreign press, wafting forward and backward above the bloody ice in a minuet with Coast Guard helicopters carrying DFO staff and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.”
Guy recalls one of IFAW's guides ushering British tabloid staff to the dead and dying seals, where one photographer directed a hunt worker to put one foot on a dead seal, "sort of like Tarzan, that's right” and to “sort of bloody your hands a little bit, would you?” At that, recalls Guy, the worker turned and walked away.
As this past year’s hunt began in the spring of 2005, a group of observers from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare approached an area where hunters were working. The press reported that hunters fired warning shots and hurled verbal abuse to drive off the protest, and swiped at the observers with a snowmobile, swerving away at the last moment. A shoving match ensued, complete with bloody noses.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans arrested 11 protesters for their physical interference, prompting advocates to call a local police sergeant and ask that the hunt workers be arrested.
At the same time, animal protectionists urged a renewed boycott against Canadian fish products until Canada changes its seal-killing standards.
Let’s Stop the Dance
Many countries, including the United States, prohibit the import of seal products. Canada’s Seal Industry Development Council has been actively lobbying to remove these legal nuisances to the industry. Loosened restrictions would mean new markets for people who attend the Montréal Fur Show and covet seal products along with the other furs which they can legally buy.
All of this shows the importance of making animal skins generally unpopular with consumers. It also underscores the value of encouraging Canadians themselves to pressure their government to posit alternatives for the residents of maritime regions — indigenous or immigrant alike.
Canada’s government makes excuses to continue the kill; and so, in effect, do international welfare activists. Canadians are in the best position to stop the dance. Forget “Canadian seafood boycotts” or insisting that the Canadian authorities do something entirely meaningless such as arrest seal hunters. Serious activism must be directed at the government, and the corporate interests it serves. The world community should oppose the Canadian seal hunt as a matter of morality, rather than sit in a forum with agencies and press year after year for rules that are absurd in actual quota circumstances, and then blame Newfoundland workers for failing to meet them.
Additionally, sensible people in Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Greenland, China, and South Korea must insist that their own governments put a permanent stop to their fur trading. Refusing to wear animal products entirely is the single most important step all of us can take.
From Connecticut to Argentina, Activists Seek a Principled Unity
Canada banned whale killing, and the economy adjusted. Indeed, whales are now a top tourist draw. And the value of tourism to Newfoundland — more than $500 million annually — far exceeds the value of the seal hunt, which is valued somewhere between $2 million and $25 million, depending on who’s counting.
This year, Friends of Animals launched a joint campaign with Ànima, Argentina’s premier animal rights project, founded by lawyer and author Ana María Aboglio. Together we work year-round to find ways of promoting alternatives to the hunt, not just a cleaned-up killing routine. We base this project on respect for the inherent worth of all animals in the ocean habitat.
Ánima’s Spanish-language campaign asserts that continued tweaking of the Marine Mammal Regulations is irrelevant, for “Estas matanzas no son sólo crueles. Son inmorales.” (“These killings aren’t just cruel. They’re immoral.”)
Ánima adds: “The time has come to support an economy that acknowledges the interconnected biocommunity, and the inherent worth of every sentient being.”