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April 1, 2008

Seal Hunt Inherently Inhumane

Humane Society International/Canada

On March 28, the Canadian commercial seal hunt began in earnest, setting off a wave of killing that will take the lives of 275,000 seals—virtually all pups just days or weeks of age.

Global opposition to the hunt has grown dramatically over the past few decades.

The United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Croatia and Mexico have already banned the import of seal products. And the European Union is currently considering a comprehensive ban on seal product trade—a move that many believe could spell the end of Canada's commercial seal hunt.

The hunt draws opposition from many quarters—for reasons ranging from economic to ecological. But chief among them for most observers is how inherently inhumane [PDF] the hunt really is.

An impossible environment

While some aspects of the commercial seal hunt have changed slightly over the years, what has remained consistent is the physical environment in which the seal hunt operates, and the impact it has on the way the killing occurs.

Canada's commercial seal hunt is an industrial-scale slaughter that occurs over just a few days in treacherous conditions—up to 275km off Canada's eastern shore in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Sealers hunt in massive ocean swells, gale-force winds, and low visibility.

This year the Canadian government claims hunters are required to implement a three-step killing process as a condition of their hunting licenses. The process involves stunning, testing for unconsciousness and bleeding. But in the physical context of the Canadian seal hunt, the three steps—and the few regulations that already exist to protect seals—are impossible to consistently and effectively follow.

When hunters are able to physically get onto the ice, the high winds and low visibility often make it difficult for them to accurately stun seals with one blow.

Back in the 1980s, the Canadian government appointed a Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing, which produced a lengthy report on the welfare aspects of seal hunting.

While the Commission argued that it is possible in theory for a sealer to render a seal unconscious with a blow to the head by a club, and then immediately bleed the seal, they continued, “The difficulties arise from the actual conditions under which the seal hunt is conducted. Clubbing is a physical act, and the clubber must strike every blow with precision to ensure humane clubbing. It is probably impossible to invariably achieve this precision, given the cold and slippery conditions on the ice, the long hours, the pressure to work fast, and the possibility of a moving target.”

And yet year after year, HSI/The HSUS and other observers have documented the same brutal slaughter—rife with violations that are almost unavoidable.

Speed kills

At dawn on Friday, sealers rushed to kill thousands of baby seals during the first phase of this year's hunt.

This is dangerous, expensive work, and sealers hurry to get in and get out of the area—spending little time to ensure the limited suffering of seals. In many years, hundreds of thousands of seals are killed in just a few days.

The sealers literally compete against each other for quotas, killing as many animals as quickly as possible before the region's quota is reached. Vessel owners are loathe to remain in the treacherous ice conditions of the seal hunt for any longer than they have to, putting added pressure on the sealers to work quickly. The speed at which the hunt is conducted increases the suffering of the seals as sealers fail to take the time to ensure each animal is unconscious prior to cutting them open.

The price of inaccuracy


Brutal tools

Long hours, slippery ice, fragile ice floes, pressure to work quickly, and moving targets all contribute to the suffering of the seals. In recent years, HSI/The HSUS has consistently filmed hunters beating seals repeatedly on the jaw, the face and the body—failing to render the animals unconscious. Veterinary studies have confirmed that sealers often fail to crush the skulls of the seals they club, instead striking them in other areas such as the jaw—failing to ensure unconsciousness, let alone death.

Some of this has to do with the weapons used to kill seals how inappropriate they are for use in the sealing environment. Seal hunters use wooden bats, hakapiks (clubs with metal spikes on the end) and rifles to kill seal pups. Post mortem examinations performed by veterinarians in recent years have revealed that an unacceptably high percentage of seals were not even rendered unconscious after being struck with clubs or hakapiks or shot with rifles.


Sealers also shoot at seals from moving vessels, from distances as far as 50-70 meters.

The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing stated, "Many Canadian hunts take place, or have taken place, under conditions which make it impossible to obtain an acceptably high proportion of kills with head shots …The causes include long-range shooting, shooting from moving boats, and shooting at seals in the water."

In recent years, HSI/The HSUS has consistently filmed sealers shooting at seals but failing to kill them, leaving the wounded seals to suffer in agony for extended periods of time. Sealers on boats have difficulty maneuvering through thick, broken ice to swiftly retrieve the seals, who are often still conscious and suffering from their wounds.

When the ice is too broken or fragile, the sealers are unable to get onto the ice to test the seal for unconsciousness. Instead, hunters frequently lean over the sides of their boats, impale the seal with a gaff (a long wooden pole with a steel hook at the end), and drag them onto the boat—skipping the unconsciousness test and bleeding process. HSI/The HSUS has documented this on countless occasions.

Testing for unconsciousness

HSI/The HSUS and other observers have also documented sealers routinely impaling conscious seals on gaff hooks and dragging them across the ice floes, prior to testing for unconsciousness.

At the 2007 hunt, HSI/The HSUS captured repeated instances of live seals being dragged across the ice and hoisted onto sealing vessels with gaffs.

Of 71 random instances of seals being killed on film documented by HSI/The HSUS, sealers failed to perform a test for unconsciousness prior to impaling seals on hooks and dragging them across the ice in 72 percent of cases. In 25 percent of those instances, the seals appeared to be responding to pain as they were hooked and dragged.

The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing stated, "The testing of the blink reflex as a check on unconsciousness [a Marine Mammal Regulation] is probably often omitted … It is easy to imagine that the sealers would neglect this check when they were tired or in a hurry, as they usually are."

Veterinary studies as recently as 2007 confirm the vast majority of seal hunters do not check for unconsciousness in the seals prior to hooking, dragging or skinning them. HSI/The HSUS has repeatedly filmed this violation in recent years.


The third licensing condition for sealers is to bleed the seal after the test for unconsciousness is performed.

But so far in the 2008 hunt, HSI/The HSUS hasn't observed a single sealer taking this step.

Studies show that blink reflex tests only guarantee temporary unconsciousness, meaning if the seals are not bled immediately, they can regain consciousness and be cut open while able to feel pain.    

When no one's watching

Hundreds of thousands of seal pups are killed every year, almost entirely out of sight of the public—as well as the authorities who might penalize sealers who violate regulations.

The hunt takes place in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, over an area of the size of France—such a large span that the Canadian government cannot effectively monitor the thousands of sealers on hundreds of vessels to ensure standards for humane killing are being met. Most of the slaughter happens so far off shore that very few individuals—public or government—can even reach it.

The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing reported on the inability of fisheries officers to adequately monitor the seal hunt.

They noted, "the area that they must patrol is very extensive, the number of sealers is large, and sealing operations are multifaceted. For these reasons it is impossible to keep all parts of the seal hunt under close supervision at all times."

But more and more, the world is turning its eyes to this senseless and cruel slaughter. HSI and The HSUS are off the east coast of Canada again this year, bearing witness to the killing with the hope that this year will be the one to galvanize public sentiment into action, persuade the European Union to finally ban seal products, and finally shut down this hunt forever.

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