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Confronting Canada's Spring Hunt For Seals: A Call To Action

In 1972, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act banned U.S. imports of skins from seals who are eight months of age or younger or nursing at the time of kill. Before that provision entered into force, Friends of Animals' founder Alice Herrington twice witnessed Canada's spring massacre of baby harp seals on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Herrington wrote in her introduction to the article "The Plight of Ocean Mammals," which appeared in The Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review: "What is wanted by those who are "friends of the animals" is very simple: that ocean mammals be left alone. They should be neither harassed, killed, managed, nor harvested."

Those tenets remain true today.

In FoA's Spring 1969 membership report, Herrington, who had personally viewed the 1968 hunt, reported: "Every spring the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northwest Atlantic turn red as 260,000 friendly, intelligent seals are terrorized and murdered. The mammals of the oceans belong to the world - not to any nation or any industry. The United States Congress cannot control the actions of other nations - but it can effectively act to halt these barbarities by banning the import of sealskins into the United States."

In February and March of 1969, FoA placed advertisements in dozens of newspapers pressing the public to protest Canada's seal slaughter. These advertisements set off a chain of publicity. Brian Davies's [1] film of the massacre was televised, causing an international outcry when viewers saw the gruesome scenes of baby seals hacked to death in front of their helpless mothers. Life Magazine covered the story and headlined its photographs, "A bloody business in Canada causes an uproar all over."

Herrington's account of the seal slaughter in 1970 was recounted by a reporter for The New York Times :

"A mother seal threw herself protectively across the body of her pup. When the man who had clubbed it returned to skin the pup, the mother stood fast. A second hunter, then a third, came up to within a foot or two of the mother. It maintained its protective position, resting on its front flippers, its head thrust up and forward, facing the danger. Finally, a man approached from the side. With a quick, darting motion, he waved his club within inches of the mother's head, then jerked it back. The seal turned on the man. He backed away. The seal, using its flippers in a pull-push motion, moved slowly and awkwardly over the ice in pursuit. Meanwhile, two hunters had dragged the pup away. The mother turned and tried to give chase but again could not catch up. It stopped and watched the lost pup for a moment. Then it turned, crept to the edge of the ice, and dived into the water." [2]

Herrington recalled, "The mother seals that are driven off bounce up and down in the water holes as in a macabre ballet, watching helplessly the murder of their nursing babies. At the end of the day as the killers disappear from the scene, the mothers crawl back on the ice, each to nuzzle the bloody, lifeless carcass of her own pup." [3]

Fur traders retaliated. In the 1970s, FoA spent four years in an attempt to vindicate its name in a defamation case until the Court of Appeals dismissed the complaint. [4] FoA claimed that Associated Fur Manufacturers made the defamatory statement that "Friends of Animals has hired trappers to skin baby seals alive to be filmed and shown on television under the presumption that the act was spot news." FoA explained to the court that the fur group made the claim in retaliation for FoA's campaign to persuade people not to buy fur coats. The judges decided that the fur group could be held to be liable only if FoA had established the existence of actual malice - a deliberate intent to inflict harm.

Canadians Duped

Canadians learned that the annual spring seal hunt off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland, plus the Magdalen Islands in eastern Quebec, had triggered worldwide revulsion.

Protesters arrived and some tried to save seal pups by squirting them with a harmless dye to make their fur unmarketable. The Canadian Government reacted by banning the press, television crews and independent observers from witnessing the seal kill without an observation license issued by the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans. Under Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations, it is illegal to film the seal kill, or to come within a half -mile of a person on the ice hunting a seal. Those who have tried to film it, or peacefully register dissent, have been jailed.

Herrington wrote: "No protests about this official Canadian violation of freedom of the press have been made, and yet the cries should have been as loud and clear as those uttered when the press was barred from covering the Granada invasion/rescue mission of the U.S. Army. The press today picks up and prints as fact statements issued by the Canadian Sealers Association and the Canadian Government."

In 1983, the European Economic Community banned the importation of products from harp and hooded seals. That put a dent in the global sealskin market.

In turn, Canada banned the commercial killing of newborn, white-coated seals. But in the seals' twelfth day of life, their coats begin to molt; hunters may then legally kill the seals. Twelve-day-old seal pups are as helpless as they were as "white coats." Gradually they develop gray-blue coats with dark spots. The Canadian public relations people who claim that pups are no longer killed must be disabused of their definition of "pup."

"In only 10-14 days a baby harp seal is no longer a baby: it has truly grown up," the minister of fisheries and oceans said. [5] Canadian officials also say that the pup is classified as an adult because the pup is weaned, mobile and can be shot with a rifle. The implication is that these so-called grown-ups are given a sporting chance of escape.

In truth, seals are sometimes shot in open water, or on moving ice floes, but bullet holes in the skins reduce the market value. Because a wounded seal will crawl to an open-water spot, the seal will die beneath the ice. An estimated two out of three seals shot are not retrieved.

FoA's understanding of seal hunters, derived from conversations Herrington had with many of them, is that they would not entertain the frustration of mitigating the animals' fear and suffering. And, in any case, over those vast stretches of ice, no outside parties observe the killing, or report violations to Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations — ostensibly designed to "control abuses in the sealing industry."[6]

Seals may be lawfully killed by rifles, clubs or hakapiks. [7]

Migration and Birth

Harp and hooded seals undertake extensive annual migrations. In late February, Northwest Atlantic harp seals begin arriving on their breeding grounds, the ice floes in two areas: the Gulf of St. Lawrence near the Magdalen Islands, and off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland.

After they find ice platforms to support their 400-pound bodies, the females leave the water to give birth between late February and mid-March. Each female gives birth to one pup. Young seals weighing 70 - 80 pounds nurse frequently until they are weaned 10 - 20 days from birth. After pups are weaned, female harp seals join males to mate, spending six to eight weeks on the ice before continuing their migration north to Greenland.

The Reuters news agency reported that in the last decade, climate change has melted ice cover in the Atlantic coast, and the break up ice is hazardous to pups. And humans make their lives even more dangerous: Canada's seal hunt, from mid-March until May, is the largest commercial slaughter of free-living animals in the world.

Slaughter Accelerates

On March 24, 1987, Canada's fisheries minister announced that the Canadian government had approved resumption of large-scale seal hunting from ships, despite a report from a government commission that recommended halting all hunting of seals because of the damage done to Canada's international image.

FoA promptly placed advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post asking readers to flood the Canadian Embassy with letters and calls opposing the seal kill, and to boycott Canadian products. The Canadian government tried to placate protesters by saying that killing 186,000 seals was of no consequence to the overall seal population, and that dead seals would be used for their meat, oil, flippers and pelts.

The European Economic Community announced it would boycott Canadian fish products unless seal hunting stopped. On December 31, 1987, Canada reacted by banning all offshore commercial hunting of young and mature harp and blue back hooded seals. The government also imposed a ban on hunting gray seals — animals accused of competing with Canadian anglers for fish. All in all, economic pressure probably spared the lives of many seals. But interest among animal advocacy organizations waned, and the press was deluded into believing the commercial slaughter had ended. [8]

In December 1996, Brian Tobin, Canada's fisheries minister, announced an increase in the killing quota of harp seals along the Atlantic coast from 186,000 to 287,000 animals. Tobin's home is Newfoundland, the most economically depressed province, and heart of the seal hunting industry. Tobin had repeatedly accused seals of depleting Atlantic codfish, and putting anglers out of work. Although scientists had warned for years that commercial fishing was going to devastate numbers of cod, their warnings were ignored.

"Fewer seals mean more fish - that is the simple-minded view," said Dr. David Lavigne, a Canadian marine biologist and seal specialist. [9] If the U.S. lifted the ban on importing seal products, he said, seal-killing would "spiral upward."

Cod comprise only a minor part of a harp seal's diet; moreover, seals also eat the fish who prey on the cod. When the Canadian cod fishery collapsed, politicians blamed seals and predicted that a seal slaughter would restore cod fish numbers and provide jobs in Newfoundland.

Canada is a major economic power, and the seal slaughter is subsidized by its taxpayers. Rather than find alternative livelihoods for unemployed people in economically depressed areas, the politicians give them the seals, as though seals were renewable resources, and as though sacrificing them is a socially responsible action to provide gainful employment.

A Curious Market for Seal Products

The federal government and Newfoundland's provincial government has labored to promote the hunt and sale of seal products such as seal meat, oil (Omega 3 Seal Oil Capsules), leather and fur. For many years seal meat was fed to commercially ranched fox and mink in the Maritime provinces for the purpose of producing animals with shiny coats for the fur industry. Seal oil capsules can be purchased in Canadian health food stores, but the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the importation of marine mammal products including seal oil used as a vitamin.

There is also the seal-penis trade. For every male seal shot for its penis, a female may be shot because seals can't be sexed when sighted in open water.

Shortly before Viagra entered the market, Dr. Clive Southey, a Canadian economist, wrote: "The economic viability of the industry is heavily dependent on meat subsidies and the sale of penises. Between them, these constitute 55% of the revenue of sealers and boat owners after paying for fuel, ammunition, etc." [10]

After Viagra went on sale in 1998, trade in seal penises fell. As reported in The Wall Street Journal: "Sales are "way down" from a few years ago, says Sang-Jo Chung, who runs an herbal-remedies shop in Toronto's Korean district. A few years ago, Mr. Chung says he would sell 20 or so seal penises a year, but to get them to sell these days, he has had to lower the price to about $70 from more than $103." [11]

According to Industry Canada, in 2001, Canada's fur industry was valued at $335 million, and seal fur was a small portion of Canada's fur trade. In 2002, prime seal pelts sold for approximately $49 - $55 U.S. In 2003, seal pelts sold between $39 - $43 U.S.

In 2002, 84,565 raw seal skins were exported to the following countries in the order of the largest number of skins received: Norway, Denmark, Poland, Estonia, Greece, Japan and Hong Kong. [12]

In 2003, Statistics Canada, showed Canadian seal skin exports through July, 2003 (the latest statistics available at the time of press), as numbering 64,617 raw seal skins: to Norway (48,886), China (9,999), Denmark (5,722), and Taiwan (10).

Birger Christensen furs in Copenhagen promotes high-end designer clothing from such labels as Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, the price of a seal skin coat starting around $2,000 U.S. Dolce & Gabbana and Prada used harp seal skin for the first time in their men's collection in 2001. Other seal skin items include a knapsack for $230 U.S., a necktie for $49 U.S., a wallet for $18.50 U.S., and a glasses case for $37.50 U.S.

Ottawa's Announcement

The Canadian government pemitted the last three consecutive spring hunts to result in the killing of nearly a million seals between 12 days and 12 weeks old - the largest kill quota in 30 years. In response to public admonition, Canada required that hunters poke a seal in the eye to see if it blinks to ensure the animal is dead before the skin is removed. Steven Outhouse, a spokesperson for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, explained that a live seal will blink when poked.

FoA Decries The Massacre

Regardless of the numbers targeted, the seal kill cannot be morally or scientifically justified. Seals are not resources or commodities to be traded for the convenience of profit; they're entitled to be left alone. FoA deplores the seal hunt for the suffering and death it imposes on every single seal.

Some animal welfare groups are concerned with the humane aspects of the hunt, other animal advocacy groups oppose it, and a few conservation groups tolerate the annual hunt as long as the seal population is "sustainable" and not threatened. The World Wildlife Fund Canada endorses the hunt. To end Canada's seal slaughter, any campaign must engage Canadians, identify the marketplace, and motivate consumers to take a stand and eschew these deadly designs.

What You Can Do

Please write to the Prime Minister, the minister of fisheries and oceans, and if you live in Canada, your own member of Parliament, and tell them that instead of expanding the slaughter, it must be abolished.

Please write to:

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper (elected 23 January 2006)
Prime Minister
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street Ottawa
Ontario Canada K1A 0A2
Fax: 613-941-6900

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)
The Hon. Geoff Regan, P.C., M.P.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans
Parliament Hill:
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Telephone: (613) 996-3085 or (613) 992-3474
Fax: (613) 996-6988

Loyola Hearn
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

St. John's South-Mount Pearl

Write to:
House of Commons
Suite 648-S, Centre Block
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Telephone at Office in Ottawa: 613.992.0927, Fax: 613.995.7858


  1. Brian Davies helped create IFAW in 1969 and became their executive director
  2. The New York Times, 18 Mar. 1971, p.41
  3. The Boston College Environmental Law Center, Environmental Affairs, Vol. 1 No. 4 "The Plight of Ocean Mammals," by Alice Herrington and Lewis Regenstein, 1971
  4. Friends of Animals, Inc. v. Associated Fur Manufacturers, Inc., 46 N.Y.2d1065 (1979).
  5. Tom Siddon, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, 2 Sept. 1987 in Ottawa
  6. IFAW investigative report. February 1997. "Canada's Seal Hunt." p.5.
  7. A hakapik has an iron head with a curved spike about 5.5 inches long on one side. The head is mounted on a wooden handle up to five feet long.
  8. Friends of Animals Nov./Dec. 1989 Act•ionLine, p. 18
  9. The New York Times, 17 Oct. 2000, "As Greenland's Seal Population Surges Its Fishermen Look to Revive the Hunt."
  10. The Newfoundland Commercial Seal Hunt: An Economic Analysis of Costs and Benefits, Clive Southey, Ph. D
  11. The Wall Street Journal, 25 April 2001, p. A1
  12. Agriculture Canada, Statistics Canada on-line trade reports