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October 11, 2012

Landmark Veterinary Study Concludes Bans on Seal Product Trade are Justified on Ethical Grounds

Canadian commercial seal hunt does not conform to accepted standards of humane slaughter

Humane Society International/Canada

  • Commercial sealing is not humane. HSI

MONTREAL, Humane Society International/Canada welcomes the publication of a landmark veterinary report that concludes trade prohibitions on products of commercial seal hunts are justified on animal welfare grounds because of the inherent obstacles to humane slaughter in commercial sealing. Commercial seal hunting faces worldwide condemnation, which has resulted in numerous countries taking measures to restrict trade in seal products.

“Canada’s commercial seal hunt does not occur in a controlled environment. Rather, it happens far offshore where high winds and ocean swells, low temperatures and visibility, and unstable sea ice are common elements,” said British veterinarian Andrew Butterworth, DVM. “The evidence shows that these factors, paired with the speed at which the killing must occur due to economic and safety pressures, prevent consistent and effective application of humane slaughter methods in the Canadian commercial seal hunt.”

“I have studied the Canadian seal hunt extensively, and concluded that it is an inherently inhumane activity because of the environment in which it operates and the speed at which the killing happens,” said Canadian veterinarian Mary Richardson, DVM. “What is clear is that climate change is actually exacerbating the situation, by altering the physical environment in which sealers work. The decrease in sea ice cover in recent years is likely increasing instances in which seals are shot at in open water, wounded and left to suffer, and impaled on gaffs and dragged onto vessels while conscious. These are all situations in which seals suffer significantly.”

“In clear and compelling detail, this peer reviewed study details the numerous, insurmountable obstacles to humane slaughter at the Canadian commercial seal hunt,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada. “In the fourteen years I’ve witnessed this slaughter, I’ve documented consistent levels of suffering that no Canadian could ever accept if they could see it for themselves. As a civilized society, we must take immediate action to end this inherently inhumane activity, and one of the best ways to do so is to stop the global trade in seal products.”


  • Multiple factors prevent effective and consistent application of humane slaughter methods in the context of commercial sealing, including the speed at which the killing must be conducted, the climate and sea ice conditions in which the seal hunt occurs, and the changes in sea ice state which have come about with climate change.
  • Canada’s sealing regulations fail to prescribe humane slaughter methods, as any responsible veterinary authority would define them.
  • Veterinary studies on the outcomes of commercial sealing show consistent problems in the application of three central components of humane slaughter: stunning, monitoring for unconsciousness, and bleeding out.
  • The nature of the seal hunt—including long distance shooting, shooting from moving boats and targeting moving animals—makes it unlikely to obtain an acceptably high proportion of clean head shots, and high wounding rates are recorded when seals are shot.
  • Stunning by manual percussive blows to the skull (clubbing) is not recommended for general use or for animals the size and weight of the seals killed in the Canadian seal hunt. In examining skulls of seals clubbed by Canadian sealers, veterinarians have repeatedly identified a lack of cranial injury that would correlate with insensibility.
  • It may be that given the commercial scale of the hunt, the nature of the animals involved and the field environment in which the killing occurs, there are no fail-safe methods for determining levels of consciousness in wounded seals, and veterinary reports have consistently identified a widespread failure by sealers to monitor seals for unconsciousness following stunning.
  • Canada’s commercial seal hunt employs stunning methods that can induce temporary loss of consciousness and must be promptly followed by bleeding to cause death. However, Canada’s sealing regulations do not require that seals are bled out immediately following confirmation of unconsciousness, nor do they prevent sealers from gaffing and dragging or throwing seals prior to or during the bleeding process.
  • Close monitoring of the commercial seal hunt by authorities is a practical impossibility given that the area to be patrolled is very extensive and the number of sealers is large.
  • Changes in the ice state due to climate change likely increase instances in which seals are shot at in open water, wounded and lost, or impaled on gaffs and dragged onto vessels while conscious.
  • Seals have a number of physiological and anatomical adaptations that bring into question whether ‘conventional’ thinking on slaughter can be applied to these animals.
  • In the context of commercial sealing, both shooting and clubbing should be viewed as inherently inhumane.
  • The evidence clearly shows that the actions of governments in prohibiting trade in seal products are justified.


Media Contact: Dean Pogas, HSI/Canada: 514-261-6007/514-395-2914; dpogas@hsi.org

Humane Society International/Canada is a leading force for animal protection, representing tens of thousands of members and constituents across the country. HSI Canada has active programs in companion animals, wildlife and habitat protection, marine mammal preservation and farm animal welfare. HSI Canada is proud to be a part of Humane Society International—one of the largest animal protection organizations in the world, with more than 11 million members and constituents globally. On the Web at hsicanada.ca.

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