The Killing Fields
Over the next few months, the vast seasonal fields of ice that extend off the Atlantic coast of Canada will become the theatre for the annual ritual of the Canadian Seal Hunt, the largest commercial hunt of marine mammals anywhere in the world. This year, up to 350,000 seals - most of them harp seal pups less than a year old - will be killed legally, and countless others will be lost at sea, dying from wounds inflicted by hunting activities.

Many people believe that the commercial hunt ended in the late 1980s, when the Canadian sealing industry was hit hard by an EEC ban on the importation of seal skins (pelts). But thanks to substantial subsidies, large-scale culling has never stopped, and it´s getting worse. Within the last 10 years, the Canadian Government has effectively doubled the total allowable catch (TAC) of seals, and is now allowing a staggering figure of almost 1,000,000 animals to be taken over three years (2003-2005).

Since the commercial collapse of the regional fishery for Atlantic cod in the early 1990s, the Government has tried hard to dodge the inevitable bullet of blame by accusing the "exploding" population of seals of eating all the fish. But overwhelming scientific evidence has refuted this claim, pointing the finger straight back at the Government for mismanaging the fishery and allowing massive over exploitation of fish stocks for decades.

The most distressing aspect of the seal hunt is its poor record on humane slaughter. Animal welfare organizations, like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), have regularly demonstrated, often in graphic video footage of sealers in action, how the sealing regulations are regularly ignored and not enforced effectively. But the Government and sealers have consistently dismissed this allegation, maintaining that inhumane culling practices are not widespread. Recent evidence, however, exposes the true scale of the problem. In 2001, an international team of veterinary experts, who observed cullers at work and conducted post-mortem examinations of seals killed on the ice, produced a report that had alarming conclusions: 79% of sealers did not check to see if a seal was dead before skinning it, and 42% of the animals examined had head injuries that did not kill them outright. In effect, these seals were skinned alive. If this is representative of the hunt as a whole, then more than 100,000 young seals may be skinned alive in 2004.

The Canadian seal hunt appears to be conducted inhumanely, managed ineffectively, unsound economically, and unsustainable. With so much going against it, why does it continue? Well, ignorance and apathy have a lot to do with it. Many Canadians and foreign visitors are simply unaware that a large seal hunt still exists, and the few that do make further enquiries are often satisfied with the Government´s assurances of humane culling and effective management. Collectively, this continues to suppress rebellion from within and concern from abroad.

Even if the hunt is a sham, what´s the alternative? Can the region survive without it? The short answer is yes. You just have to look at the compelling economic argument for investing in tourism (versus sealing) as a regional enterprise. In 2002, tourism generated $300 million for the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador; this amount had doubled since 1992. In contrast, in 2001, the landed value of all seals taken in Newfoundland and Labrador was only $5 million and going nowhere fast.

For now, though, the annual slaughter of seals continues. In the long term, only a massive social and cultural revolution in Atlantic Canada, generated from within or imposed from outside, will see an end to the hunt. For a region facing stark fiscal reality in the face, any revolution will probably stem from strong economic pressure on people and governments to finally alter the status quo.

Ironically, the seal hunt seems to have done no harm to Canada´s international reputation. The United Nations´ annual Human Development Report, which measures standard of living and quality of life, rated Canada as the "best place in the world to live" from 1995-2000. Apparently, no seals were polled.

This report is based on a full report prepared by Dr. Glenn Boyle, who was Curator at the National Seal Sanctuary.
You can find out more about the cull at the IFAW website
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