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February 4, 2011

Myths and Facts: The Truth About Canada's Commercial Seal Hunt

Humane Society International/Canada

  • Skerry/The HSUS

Myth: It is illegal to kill baby seals in Canada.

Fact: Baby seals are the primary target of the commercial seal slaughter. In Canada, newborn "whitecoat" harp seals are protected from hunting. But as soon as they begin to shed their white coats—as young as 12 days of age—these baby seals can be legally hunted by sealers. In fact, 97 percent of the seals killed in the commercial seal hunt over the past five years have been less than 3 months old, and most were one month old or less. At the time of slaughter, many of the pups had not yet eaten their first solid meal or taken their first swim. Sealers target the baby seals because their skins are in "prime" condition and fetch the highest prices.

Myth: The seal hunt is humane.

Fact: Veterinarians say the seal hunt is inherently inhumane. In 2007, an international panel of veterinary and zoology experts studied the commercial seal hunt. Their report detailed a widespread disregard for regulations by Canadian sealers, a failure to monitor the seal hunt by Canadian authorities, high wounding rates in seals that were shot or clubbed, wounded seals left to suffer for protracted periods of time, and sealers failing to ensure animals were dead in 66 percent of cases. The report concluded that both clubbing and shooting of seals should be considered unacceptable. In 2001, an independent veterinary panel performed post-mortems on seal carcasses abandoned on the ice floes. The report concluded that in 42 percent of cases, the seals did not show enough evidence of cranial injury to even guarantee unconsciousness at the time of skinning. These reports are supported by the testimony of independent journalists, parliamentarians and scientists who observe and document the commercial seal hunt each year. Footage from the commercial seal hunt consistently shows conscious pups stabbed with boathooks and dragged across the ice, wounded pups left to choke on their own blood and conscious seal pups cut open.

Myth: The seal hunt is sustainable.

Fact: Scientists say today's seal kill levels are not sustainable. A recent study by Professor Stephen Harris, from Bristol University, asserts that the Canadian management regime for harp seals does not apply a precautionary principle and threatens the survival of seal populations. Because seals only reach breeding age at six years of age, the impacts of these high hunting levels are only starting to be felt. Under its current management plan, by the time the Canadian government decides to take action to save the population, it may well be too late to intervene. Notably, today's kill levels meet and even exceed those of the 1950s and 1960s, when over-hunting quickly reduced the harp seal population by nearly two thirds.

Myth: The seal population is "exploding" and a cull is necessary.

Fact: The harp seal population is recovering from record low levels. In an attempt to defend the seal hunt, sealing advocates often say that the harp seal population has "tripled" over the past three decades. But they conveniently neglect to mention that over-hunting in the 1950s and '60s had reduced the population by nearly two thirds. A dramatic decline in hunting levels in the 1980s allowed the population to rebuild, but today's kill levels now meet and even exceed those of a half century ago. Harp seals have many natural predators, including sharks, whales and polar bears—and now the seals have a new threat to contend with—climate change. As the sea ice cover harp seals rely on to give birth and nurse their pups disappears, the seal population faces devastating mortalities. In recent years, the Canadian government has estimated up to 100 percent mortality in key whelping areas when the ice melted before the pups were old enough to survive in open water.

Myth: The seal hunt is a vital economic activity.

Fact: The seal hunt is an economically marginal activity and could easily be phased out. The Canadian government estimates between 5000 and 6000 Canadians derive some income from sealing. Notably, sealers are commercial fishermen who earn, on average, less than 5 percent of their annual incomes from killing seals—the remainder comes from fisheries. Even in Newfoundland, where most sealers live, income from the seal hunt accounts for less than one percent of the province's economy.

Myth: Seals are preventing recovery of fish stocks.

Fact: Human overfishing and other fishing practices are preventing recovery of fish stocks. According to Canadian government scientists, it was human overfishing—not seal predation—that caused the collapse of groundfish stocks. Not surprisingly, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that killing seals will bring back fish stocks. Seals are a convenient scapegoat for the fishing industry, providing a distraction from the destructive commercial fishing practices that continue today. In reality, seals, like all marine mammals, are a vital part of the ecosystem of the northwest Atlantic, and help all fish populations to thrive. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans states clearly that there is no evidence killing seals will help bring fish stocks back.

Myth: The Canadian government does not subsidize the commercial seal hunt.

Fact: Millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is used to subsidize the sealing industry. A 2001 report by the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment (CIBE) found over $20 million in government subsidies provided to the sealing industry over the seven year period 1995-2001. In recent years, the Canadian government has continued to subsidize the slaughter, providing millions of taxpeyers' dollars to the sealing industry in the form of Coast Guard support for sealing vessels, government lobbying trips on behalf of the sealing industry, grants to processing companies and marketing associations, and a host of other hidden subsidies. 

Myth: Canadians support the seal hunt.

Fact: National polling shows the overwhelming majority of Canadians oppose the commercial seal hunt. Nearly 70 percent of Canadians holding an opinion are opposed to the commercial seal hunt, and even higher numbers oppose specific aspects of it, such as killing seal pups (Environics Research, 2005). Fully 66 percent of Canadians holding an opinion support foreign nations banning seal product trade, and 67 percent oppose their government spending public money to lobby foreign governments on behalf of the sealing industry (Pollara, 2007).

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