Prince Edward Island seal harvester Kenneth MacLeod of Murray River may be a small-time harvester, usually taking about 475 pelts.

But his crew relies very heavily on his income. “I have to make money in order for them to make money,” says MacLeod.

MacLeod was adding his opinion to the late July reports by the European Union of a proposed ban on seal products. If this new legislation is passed it could lead to uncertainties for the East Coast seal hunt, due to potential problems getting pelts to market.

MacLeod says pelts from the east coast are usually heading to the Soviet Union, China, Turkey, and Norway. “If we can’t move our pelts through EU countries … if they don’t allow products enroute to somewhere else, it (seal harvesting) will become a non-viable industry,” says MacLeod.

The seal harvester, who has other fishing licenses, points out that the industry already has pressures on it due to high costs of fuel and gear.  “For me, it’s a smaller part of my income, but for my crew, it’s 40 per cent of theirs.”

Prince Edward Island has just a handful of sealers with MacLeod being one of them.

Currently there are about 170 licensed sealers in Nova Scotia, though not all partake in the hunt. The majority of Canada’s seal hunt is within Newfoundland, where approximately 85 per cent of the commercial hunt occurs in an area known as the Front.

MacLeod defends the hunt in the region when he points out that in Norway, whale killing is still traditionally carried out. The island sealer points out that in Germany wild bores are killed and in Holland, where there is an over-population of muskrats, they are poisoned. “That’s a lot more cruel then what we do with the seal harvest,” MacLeod says.

Seal hunts also occur in Finland, Sweden and Great Britain.

Ellie Dickson, a campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare notes that there is no humane method of killing a whale due to their size. “It takes about half and hour for a whale to die,” says Dickson. She says that IFAW encourages Norway and other countries that practice whaling to promote whale watching as a source of income and adds, “As far as whaling, there is a problem selling the meat, especially to young people. So, whale watching is more positive and more sustainable,” says Dickson.

As for the proposed ban the whole question surrounding it far as the EU is concerned is whether or not the seals are being slaughtered humanely. Key points in this legislation indicate that if the whole process (the hunt) is carried out to third-party standards, the hunt can be allowed. The three criteria for this humane killing include: stunning and striking; checking eyes; and bleeding.

This is what sealers must put into practice and if there is enough enforcement that this is happening, seal products going into another country would have to have certification that this was done.

Loyola Sullivan, Ambassador for Fisheries and Conservations with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), who attended meetings in late July regarding the proposed ban, says all 27 EU countries must approve this proposed ban on the importation of seal products. “It has to be approved by both parliament and council and discussions will begin in September.”

He explains that the process of defining an acceptable standard (for killing) without stress to the animal is something the DFO hopes to engage in.

What is significant to Sullivan is the numbers involved with the seal hunt as far as Atlantic Canada. He says the hunt means $55 million impact to the Newfoundland/Labrador economy with upwards of 6,000 hunters. “Thirty-five per cent of income for these people comes from sealing.”

In fact the ambassador says in one particular small community in Newfoundland there is about 50 people involved with the industry year round. “They are involved with the whole sealing process … they don’t hunt, but they have to take the fur, remove the fat and overall ready the furs for market.”

At this point, Sullivan says the industry feels putting legislation forward wasn’t justified. “We follow all standards put forth by independent veterinarians in Canada. Whatever standard and recommendation put forth by those experts, we strive to implement,” he says.

The DFO ambassador says they spend more effort on the seal hunt then any other fishery in Canada and notes that seal hunters would not deliberately allow a seal to suffer. “In Newfoundland and Labrador the hunt is carried out exclusively with rifles and that ammunition must be specific and approved by experts … this is highly enforced and sealers are killing by approved methods.”

He sites animal rights groups as using sensationalism when they produce pictures and images of red blood on white snow with white pup seals. “The white coats are there, but they are not being killed. There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, a white coat killed for 20 years.”

Sullivan indicates that seeing blood on white snow with the furry pups around gives a false image of what is really going on. “Ninety-nine per cent of people who see this think how cruel it is. But in some cases, where images show a white coat being killed, it is being staged by animal rights groups. They go to this extent and even have paid people to kill them and showed the pictures,” says Sullivan.

In response to this, Sheryl Fink, senior research and projects specialist with IFAW notes that this is a very serious accusation. “We’ve heard such charges before but have never seen any evidence for this statement, nor am I aware of any group that has staged the killing of any type of seal,” says Fink. She says the killing of white coats has been illegal since 1987.

Fink says despite claims that this hunt is humane and well regulated; year after year there is documentation of the suffering of seals that are not killed humanely. Fink says the Canadian government is unable to enforce the regulations (which in themselves are inadequate) and that sealers do no comply with the regulations.