Controversy about the Canadian harp seal hunt has raged since French movie star Brigitte Bardot hit the ice floes for the cameras in the 1970s to call attention to the bloody slaughter of white baby harp seals.
Clubbing of the white-coated babies ended in 1987, but a seal hunt still takes place annually on the East Coast of Canada. Most of the seals taken are pups under three months old, although grown out of the white-coat stage.
The divisive, centuries-old hunt pits sealers from tiny villages who depend on the sealing income for a percentage of their annual incomes, against environmentalists and the general public who abhor the hunt’s bloody images and object to the killing of mammals that are protected elsewhere, such as the U.S.
The slaughter of some 335,000 seals in 2006 contributed about $25 million to harvesters, whose incomes were slashed by the loss of the cod fishery. This year, as in every other year, the hunt has attracted celebrities and environmentalists who oppose it, fishermen and politicians who support it.
Attitudes this year are no different, but tactics have changed a bit — opposing sides are more likely to use economic disincentives to make their point.
Several European countries contemplated or passed laws this year banning the import of all Canadian seal products. U.S. environmentalists continued a boycott of all Canadian seafood products. And Canada responded by using a data-mining program to find people and businesses who might listen to their side, and by launching a seal hunt website.
An 11-member Canadian delegation also traveled to Europe in April to discuss the seal product bans with European Union politicians, warning EU officials these new steeps violate the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and World Conservation Union (IUCN) recommendations.
Led by special Ambassador Loyola Sullivan, the Canadians invited veterinary experts and legislators to travel to Canada to monitor the seal hunt.
“They are completely unaware of the grave impact their import bans would have on the livelihoods and cultures of hunters and fishers who depend on the hunt” said Rob Cahill, Executive Director of the Fur Institute of Canada, one of the delegates.
Germany, The Netherlands, England and Belgium have all passed or are planning to pass laws against the import of Canadian seal products this year. They are also all signers to IUCN and CBD agreements.
When Canadians returned home they told reporters they were shocked by the level of ignorance displayed by some EU officials about the human rights issues involved in their bans, or their indifference about violating international agreements. The European Commission had resisted calls for an EU-wide ban.
Noting the boycott’s effect, the Canadian embassy countered this year with what it calls the most sophisticated lobbying tool in the country. GoCCART (Government of Canada Congressional Analysis and Research Tool), is a computer program that allows the Canadians to quickly find people or companies in any congressional, state or local political district whose jobs might be affected if the ban continues.
“The IUCN has urged its member governments not to introduce any new import bans,” said Trevor Taylor, Minister of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development for Newfoundland & Labrador.
Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $78 per seal, although this year prices may drop as low as $35 due to a decline in quality.
Meanwhile, the issue of global warming cast the entire issue in a new light as environmentalists called attention to the shrinking, scarce ice floes and publicized pictures of seal pups drowning while trying to find ice this year. Many said the seals are doubly at risk because of the shrinking ice cover. British newspapers said the hunt would bring a “bloody end” to the pups’ struggle “against so many odds.”
But when the first seal hunt was opened April 2 in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, some of the arguments were moot. Ice conditions were so bad that only two of the 40 boats from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI eligible to participate joined the hunt. Few seals were found because many had drowned, said officials, and others had headed further north, seeking ice.
The second phase of the hunt in the Gulf attracted only 12 boats at the start because of bad weather and visibility. Nearly 70 percent of seals are usually taken in the third phase, the Newfoundland fishery.
By April 17, groups protesting the hunt had departed, making this hunt one of the least confrontational in years, although it had been expected to be one of the most violent.
The total quota for this year’s hunt was 270,000 seals, down from last year’s quota of 335,000. Federal officials made the change mainly because of poor ice conditions.
Only two-thirds of the quota had been taken by the third week of April.
In March, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador launched a new website to dispel some of the “myths” about the seal hunt. Tom Rideout, provincial fisheries minister, said http://www.fishaq.gov.nl.ca/sealfactsheet/faq.htm is designed to provide easy access to information on the sealing industry.