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Standing Up for Seals

Published 09/15/05
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 36 Number 3, Fall 2005

On May 7, 2005, a letter to the editor appeared in the Toronto Star. It was written in response to an article about how the Canadian Travel Commission could not explain why Canada had fallen off the list of the top ten countries visited by tourists. “I think,” said the letter, “the answer may lie in Canada’s seal hunt. I’m sure that a little research will reveal the loss of literally tens of thousands of potential tourists who simply do not want to have anything to do with a country that shows such a barbaric disregard for animal welfare.”

Could that be?

Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Canadians have never seen, let alone killed, a harp or hooded seal. But the seal “hunt” — really a mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of helpless animals — does, indeed, cast a (deservedly) dark shadow across Canada’s otherwise benign reputation as a good place to live or visit. And some opponents of the cruel slaughter have advocated tourist boycotts of Canada.

Animal advocates have also mobilized in other ways. API is one of several animal protection organizations that have joined together to call for an end to Canada’s killing of seals by educating the public about the true horrors of the seal slaughter and by organizing a global boycott of Canadian seafood products (see “API and the Canadian Seafood Boycott” below for more information).

In the Fall 2004 Animal Issues, API briefed readers about the then-current state of the Canadian seal slaughter. This article brings our members and supporters up to date with the latest about this pressing issue, as well as providing a recap of the history of the fight against the seal hunt. We also let compassionate-minded people know how, by taking part in the global boycott of Canadian seafood, they can take a stand against this cruel slaughter that costs the lives so many seals each year.

A Temporary Victory

In 2004, more than 350,000 seals were killed in Canada. Those that weren’t shot to death were killed with clubs. How did we get to this point?

Some two decades ago, many in the animal protection movement thought they had pretty much put a stop to the Canadian seal slaughter. In the 1980s, the killing of baby seals on their ice-floe whelping grounds off Canada’s east coast was the cause célèbre of most animal advocacy organizations in the western world, including API. It seemed like just a matter of time before the horrific seal slaughter would be a relic of the past.

Mobilization against the hunt had begun in earnest a few decades earlier, in the 1960s, when, on average, about 284,000 seals were killed each year in Canada.

In 1961, as the world seemed to begin to awaken to the brutality of the seal slaughter while becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues overall, Canada imposed a limit to the length of the sealing season. In 1965, the Seal Protection Regulations were enacted — although they had more to do with restricting observers’ ability to document or protest the killing than with protecting seals. The few requirements the regulations made of sealers were routinely ignored. For example, sealers were supposed to check the seals’ reaction to having eyeballs touched, since a “corneal reflex” would indicate that the animal was stunned, but still alive and conscious, and so should not be skinned. Sealers rarely bothered taking this step, and in the vastness of the region where the slaughter occurred, enforcement of such elements of the regulations were unlikely.

By 1971, the anti-seal-hunt movement was gaining strength as the world looked on at bloody images of baby seals who were being beaten to death within days of birth. There was also increasingly-hard-to-deny evidence that the seal populations were declining. Conservationists and humane advocates were united in their opposition to the slaughter.

In response to a drastic decline in harp seal populations between 1950 and 1970, the United States in 1972 enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which banned the import of marine mammal products. The MMPA remains a vital piece of legislation in the fight against the seal slaughter because the U.S. is, by far, the largest importer of Canadian products.

The European market for seal products, however, remained robust. In 1983, after intense lobbying efforts by the animal protection community, Europe implemented a temporary ban on products derived from the youngest seals, called “whitecoats,” defined as nursing infants less than two weeks of age. Europe kept extending the ban, making it indefinite in 1989.

To placate critics, Canada took a few steps of its own to curb the seal slaughter. It outlawed use by sealers of large vessels (which, because of their size, the number of sealers they accommodated, and their ability to penetrate deepest into the floating ice-fields of the Northwest Atlantic and Gulf of St. Lawrence where the seals give birth to their young, were involved in most of the killing) and also outlawed the international sale of products derived from whitecoats.

The whitecoat ban seemed a key victory at the time. Unlike in the early days of the slaughter, when seals were killed primarily for their fat and oil, in modern times it became the snowy-white pelt of the newborn that was the most valued part of the animal. Those pelts were used by the fur industry mainly for trim, or to be made into trinkets, including, ironically, tiny seal dolls. With the U.S. and Europe no longer buying, the number of seals killed plummeted (to a low of 18,225 in 1985). And the animal protection movement, for the most part, moved on to other issues.

But the slaughter never truly disappeared and, like a monster that appears to be killed off in the third act of a horror movie only to return one more time, it has now come back stronger, bigger, and more brutal, then ever.

The New Reality

The last decade has been a horrific one for seals, with annual quotas for the Canadian seal kill increased to a staggering 275,000. In 2004, the kill was 365,971, well over quota. That figure does not include seals wounded and lost, or animals killed but not retrieved.

The Canadian government has used many lines of “reasoning” — all unreasonable and flawed — to attempt to justify the slaughter. Officials claim that the seals are “overpopulated,” despite biological evidence to the contrary. They claim that the seals are harming fisheries by eating “too many” fish, in the face of clear evidence that declining or collapsed fisheries are the fault of government mismanagement and unsustainable fisheries policies, as well as climate change and the effects of foreign overfishing outside Canadian and U.S. areas of jurisdiction. The scapegoat seals are paying a price for human error and avarice.The economic returns the slaughter provides are small. There is almost no market for seal meat, and the skins of baby seals in moult have little value as fur — although seal fur does seem to be making a resurgence, with designers including Versace and Prada incorporating this cruel “fabric” into their recent fashions. Seal leather is also of limited value, as it is hard to properly tan, expensive to prepare, and too brittle for be used for larger items. A concerted effort to develop seal oil as a health food or for industrial use has so far met with limited success, in part because it contains many contaminants. There is a market in Asia for the penis of the adult seal, which is believed to function as an aphrodisiac, but this market is fading with the development of pharmaceutical products. Fishers from Canada’s eastern coast kill seals as an off-season practice — one that generates only about 1/20th of their annual earnings. Even in that region, seal slaughter represents less than 2 percent of Newfoundland’s landed fishery, and less than 1 percent of the its overall economy.

Nevertheless, the government continues to subsidize and support the seal slaughter, in part because it does provide some incentive for people to stay in Newfoundland, where jobs are scarce and where any politician daring to suggest a shift away from exploitation of natural “resources” such as fish and seals faces likely defeat at the polls. It is a place where tradition — along with seals — dies hard.

How We Can Win

Animal advocates have employed a variety of tactics in their fight against the seal slaughter, but have not, as of yet, succeeded in ending it. Despite an onslaught of letters, protests, petitions, and demonstrations, the Canadian government has not backed down from its support of the mass killing. Why?

The answers to this question are complex, and cannot be fully explored in a brief article. Put simply, however, many activists believed that the seal slaughter will only end when the political and economic cost of support of the hunt exceeds its political and economic benefit and when the government can concoct a plausible reason to end the hunt (other than admitting that the concerns of animal protection and conservation groups are, indeed, valid).

Enter the seafood boycott. A boycott of Canadian seafood has numerous benefits: It places control of the issue in the hands of the animal protection movement; is proactive and flexible; eliminates or even reverses economic benefits derived from seal hunting; is based on negotiable power, not protest; and is capable of being self-sustaining, as it has high support from donors who understand its function.

There is great potential for a global boycott of Canadian seafood products to end the seal slaughter once and for all. U.S. residents in particular have power to make an impact, as the U.S. is by far the largest market for Canadian fish and shellfish.

Fishing profits are very thin, so reducing those profits through a boycott of Canadian fish and shellfish offers a real, pragmatic chance to put a halt to the commercial, federally-supported spring hunt for harp and hooded seals in Canadian waters. Even a small percentage drop in foreign sales of Canadian seafood can easily cost the fishing industry a far greater economic loss than the gains it receives from killing seals.

Sadly, appeals to humane and ecological interests, as compelling as they are, have not held sway. As is true in so many human affairs, money talks — so the key to ending the seal slaughter is to make it economically unfeasible. As we say in explaining the boycott, “Kill the profits, and the Canadian government, the sealing industry, and the fishing industry will kill the hunt.”

API and the Canadian Seafood Boycott

API is proud to be part of a group of animal protection groups working both individually and together to make the boycott of Canadian seafood succeed in ending the slaughter of Canadian seals.

Although API believes that a plant-based diet is best for the sake of animals, human health, and the planet, we know that many people do eat fish and shellfish. If those people choose not to eat fish and shellfish from Canada, they can help protect seals in that country from state-sanctioned slaughter. That is why we have chosen to support a boycott as a potent tool in the fight against the cruel mass killing of Canadian seals.

It’s easy to take part in the boycott:

  • At retail stores, do not buy seafood with a “Product of Canada” label.
  • At restaurants (where most seafood is purchased), ask chefs and managers not to serve Canadian seafood of any kind.
  • Write to companies, such as Red Lobster, that indirectly support the seal hunt by purchasing Canadian seafood. A list of targeted companies is available online at www.BoycottCanadianSeafood.net or by calling API.
  • Visit the boycott website at www.BoycottCanadianSeafood.net for more information, including answers to frequently asked questions about the seal slaughter; a detailed analysis of the boycott strategy; downloadable and printable resources such as a petition in support of the boycott; and an extensive list of actions individuals, politicians, and businesses can take to help stop the killing. (You can also call API’s Canadian Representative, Barry Kent MacKay, at 905-472-9731 for more information.)
  • Keep an eye on the Boycott website for information about how to order the “Boycott in a Box” — a handy kit that will contain materials including placards, stickers, information leaflets, PSAs, media releases, information on staging a successful information picket, and more.

Remember: Reducing the profitability of the seal slaughter is the key to ending it once and for all. Be part of the Canadian seafood boycott, and encourage your friends and family to join you in standing up for seals!

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