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Stubborn Canada Continues With Annual Seal Slaughter Despite Low Demand

468,200 seals are slated for slaughter this year

Oh, Canada! Why art thou so stubborn? The Great Canadian Seal Slaughter, the single largest marine mammal slaughter in the world, is in full swing and will continue to the end of May.

This controversial hunt has been hotly contested for decades, with economic interests and political will serving to convolute an issue which should be cut and dried: The killing of baby seal pups, in inhumane ways and for illogical reasons, is wrong and should be stopped.

Photo courtesy Respect for Animals

Despite the dire predictions on seal populations due to climate change the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has prescribed the highest quota since the system was first introduced in 1971. This year, a whooping 468,200 .  harp, grey and hooded seals are slated for slaughter, which is an increase of 80,000 from last season.

A portion of this increased quota comes as a part of a study proposed by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS), a body which coordinates the peer review of scientific issues for the DFO. The study, which seeks ways to bolster the cod fish stocks in the area, features an experimental cull of 70 percent, or 73,000 of the grey seals in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The CSAS's logic is primitive - any animal which competes for the same fish as humans must be exterminated, and because cod comprises a portion of the grey seal's diet, they become the unlucky target. This is ignoring the fact that the proverbial thorn in the cod's side has been, and continues to be, Homo sapiens.

Besides the fact that the consequences of tinkering with any ecosystem are impossible to predict, the correlation between dwindling cod stocks and healthy seal populations remains unproven. What can be proven, however, is the correlation between the government's pandering to the fishing industry and the upcoming federal elections.

At the heart of the great Canadian slaughter is an important question of ethics. The reality of the seal hunts is that they are a source of immense suffering for hundreds of thousands of seals every year. In 1987, the Canadian government banned the killing of whitecoat, or newborn, harp seals, due in part to international outcry. Many considered this a victory, however many are still without the full picture: as soon as whitecoats begin to shed their token white fur, which happens when they are as young as 12 days old, these babies become fair game for hunters. Close to 97% of seals killed in commercial hunts are under 3 months of age, and many are less than one month old.

It gets worse. In a 2001 report by an international veterinary panel, which observed the hunts off the coast of Prince Edward Island, it was concluded that a significant percentage of the observed animals had been conscious while they were being skinned.

Despite this, the Canadian government touts the hunt as being culturally important and clings to the idea that sealing forms the economic backbone of many maritime communities, when in fact this is not the case: it is an off-season activity with less than 6,000 participants, and according to the Humane Society, the revenue comprises only a twentieth of a hunter's annual income. A recent poll by Ipsos Reid reveals that half of Newfoundland sealers support a federal buyout of the commercial sealing industry, meaning that the fishermen would be compensated for their sealing licenses, and the money would be invested in economic alternatives for the affected communities.

The government also likes to claim that the hunt is a market-driven activity, however the numbers don't lie: the price per pelt is far below what it once was due primarily to lack of demand. In addition, 2010, the landed value of the seal hunt was just over $1 million, yet an estimated $2.3 million in taxpayers' money was spent to support it.

Millions more are spent in a frantic search for new global markets for seal products, which is a daunting task when the majority of Canada's trade partners have refused to become involved. Unfortunately, the DFO's work is paying off: on January 12 of this year, it was announced that China will likely become a significant new seal products market. Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea announced that she is "thrilled" to demonstrate the government's unwavering support of the slaughter.

While baby seals are being skinned alive, the Canadian government continues to defy national and international pressure and ignore appeals to logic. This sends the unmistakable message that money and short-sighted political agendas will continue to reign supreme.

Laura Bridgeman
Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, an organization that advocates for dolphin and whale personhood, and Campaign & Communications Specialist at Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project.

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