Proposed seal hunt legislation takes strong action…against non-existent threat

Opponents of the Canadian commercial seal hunt gather on Parliament Hill for the International Day of Action for Seals. c. IFAWMP Greg Kerr’s Private Member’s Bill C-555 was debated in the House last week.

The bill is a strange proposal, which seeks to modify the minimum distance the Canadian public must keep from “a person fishing for seals” from ½ nautical mile to 1 nautical mile (900 m to 1.85 km). The justification: to increase safety and provide better protections from “foreign radicals” for those involved in the seal hunt.

Now in my experience, sealers are a hardy lot and - foreign radicals or not - it seems unlikely that they would truly feel threatened by someone almost a kilometer away. Nor is it likely that doubling this distance would make a lick of difference to anyone’s safety.

Bill C-555 is yet another way for Canadian politicians to claim they are supporting sealers…while doing absolutely nothing of consequence. At best, it is unnecessary legislation and a waste of government resources. It would not affect licensed observers, including those from IFAW, and with the commercial seal hunt staggering on its last legs the threat of any “foreign radicals” interfering at the seal hunt these days is extremely low.

But there is a greater risk associated with this bill, one that I can guarantee you most politicians voting in favour of it have not even considered.

You see, when most people think of a seal hunt, they imagine far-off ice floes in the Atlantic in late March, with no one around but sealers, observers and perhaps a Coast Guard icebreaker. (If you are a federal politician with a particularly wild imagination, there are also menacing boatloads of “foreign radicals”).

But C-555 applies to anywhere a seal is “fished.” The Harper government is currently considering a year-round cull of grey seals – a cull that would take place in close proximity to human activity. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Canadians and visitors will unwittingly become criminals, simply for being within 2 kilometres of a seal being killed.

For obvious reasons, sealers don’t exactly announce where they are going to be hunting. Nor does the DFO disclose this information. As a result, the responsibility falls on the Canadian public – photographers, eco-tour operators, anglers, beach goers, and nature lovers – to somehow ensure that a seal is not being killed within 2 kilometres before setting out to enjoy a coastal area.  Failure to do so will be a violation of the Fisheries Act, subject to jail time or a $100,000 fine.

Why should the responsibility lie on the public citizen to ensure there are no seals being hunted in the vicinity?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around, with sealers responsible that no members of the public are at risk?

The unnecessarily overbroad scope of C-555 is a threat to the constitutional rights of Canadians. It removes the rights of every-day, average Canadians to enjoy public coastal areas without fear of being charged.

Bill C-555 will do nothing to improve sealer safety. In reality, the bill appears to be little more than a pathetic attempt to give the appearance of “standing up for sealers” while accomplishing absolutely nothing of substance. At the same time, the Canadian government continues to ignore recommendations that would improve safety for sealers, such as ensuring that vessels operating in dangerous ice conditions are equipped to do so.

It’s time for the Canadian government to stop playing games. If they are serious about improving safety at the ice, they should implement the recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board, not waste taxpayers’ money with bills to address a “threat” that doesn’t actually exist.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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