Canadian sealers propose return to horrific hunt of newborns amidst industry’s struggle to survive

A white coat seal.In a shocking revelation this morning, the French language journal Le Soleil broke the news that after a “disastrous” season with only 150 seals killed, seal hunters in Quebec, Canada, are demanding a return to the hunting of whitecoat harp seal pups (nursing pups under 2 weeks of age).

You may ask yourself: With the sealing industry in such a precarious state, and with the industry loudly and constantly claiming that whitecoats are no longer hunted, why would anyone propose a return to the internationally condemned practice of slaughtering nursing pups in front of their mothers?

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Disturbingly, the main reason given is one of crude convenience: whitecoats are typically found on ice floes closer to the hunters and are easier to kill. Once they start to shed their fur around 3 weeks of age they can be legally hunted, but by this time the ice may be further offshore or broken up. Horrifyingly, the sealers make the argument that because the seals are too young to move, killing them is more “humane.”

A second claim - that whitecoats must be killed to “manage the population” – is completely bogus. Any wildlife biologist will tell you that where hunting is used as a form of “population management” it is the adults that are targeted, not the young, which experience high rates of natural mortality.

With markets rapidly disappearing for seal products at all, it seems highly unlikely that there would be any demand for whitecoat skins. Markets for whitecoat pelts were destroyed after the European ban on their skins in 1983, and Canada stopped the commercial hunting of whitecoats in 1987. Even Russia banned its hunt for harp seals under 12 months of age back in 2009, calling it a “bloody industry” that “should have been banned a long time ago”.

Almost 30 years ago, The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing Canada concluded that “There is very strong public opposition to the clubbing of harp seal pups (whitecoats) and hooded seal pups (bluebacks). This hunt is widely viewed as abhorrent both in Canada and abroad”. The Commission further recommended that “the commercial hunting of pups of harp seals (whitecoats) and hooded seals (bluebacks) is widely unacceptable to the public and should not be permitted.” It seems unlikely that public opinion in this matter would have changed today: in fact, IFAW polling shows that 71% of Canadians support a ban on the hunting of seals under one year of age.

Thankfully, a spokesperson from DFO responded that the department was not planning to resume the hunting of whitecoats. Indeed, a return to the slaughter of whitecoat seal pups would be met with such international outrage that it would surely be the final nail in the coffin for this dying industry, and it is somewhat surprising that sealers would make such a controversial demand at a time when the industry is clearly in crisis.

Resuming the slaughter of nursing seal pups is a step backwards that will benefit no one. With the sealing industry on its last legs, now is the time to move forward. The commercial slaughter of seals is neither necessary nor economically viable in the 21st century. It is time for the Government of Canada to provide greater support for sealers and rural communities, to find alternatives to sealing that provide meaningful solutions. 

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Sheryl Fink, Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Sonja Van Tichelen, Regional Director, European Union
Regional Director, European Union