The last seal-hunting vessel was freed from the ice a bit earlier than anticipated in the waters off Newfoundland after the end of a particularly unusual sealing season affected more by weather and a shortage of seals than by the many protests against the hunt.
Around 120 longline vessels were trapped in April when a strong northeasterly gale pushed the ice toward the shore off northeastern Newfoundland, cracking a dozen boats like eggshells, said one observer.
A few dozen vessels were unexpectedly freed when temperatures warmed up a little and some of the ice shifted, but 75 remained trapped for weeks in a line of ice more than 100 miles long, presenting a challenge to the Canadian Coast Guard just to find them.
“It’s like dropping a whole bunch of pumpkins on the prairie and saying, `Go find them,’ `’ said one observer. “Just like fishing boats, they’re bright and easy to see. Except the prairie is a very big place.”
Rescue workers originally feared many boats would not be freed from the ice before June, but Coast Guard icebreakers managed to free the last four vessels by the end of the first week in May and escort them to the port of Seldom. Several of the vessels had been trapped for three weeks. At first, even the icebreakers were getting stuck in the ice while helicopters ferried supplies to the boats and moved injured crew members.
Some sealers said getting stuck in the ice was the government’s fault for delaying the start of the hunt.
“They pushed back the start of the hunt because some of the boats were still in dock and they didn’t want anyone having an unfair advantage, ” said one sealer on his return to port. “Then they kept stopping it to see if the quota had been filled. If they’d just let us get on with it, we could’ve been in, taken our seals and been out again in a day or a day and a half.”
Last year, hunters received up to $110 per pelt. This year, some participants said the buyers kept the price down to between $55 and $60 when it should have been $75 or $85. A couple of sealers brought in up to 400 seal pelts this year, but many had fewer. Those stuck in the ice lost valuable fishing time in the crab and shrimp fisheries and several required extensive boat repairs.
Desmond Adams, 50, cut his losses and returned home after one day on the water because he saw the ice coming, and he knew it could turn into a disaster if the weather changed for the worse.
Adams, of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island, said buyers manipulated the price of the seal pup pelts and he fears low prices combined with escalating insurance premiums could end the hunt.
Insurance can now cost $20,000 or more for a fishing boat and some insurers likely won’t cover boats that attempt the ice from now on. Adams said the deductible for ice damage is so high, most don’t even put in a claim. Many do the work themselves, but new regulations may require that repairs be done by certified repair shops, making repairs more expensive.
Regulators also changed hunting hours, requiring sealers to stop at 5 p.m. when the seals are thickest on the ice. This year’s cull quota was 270,000, down from 325,000 last year.