Filmmaker perseveres to save seals

IFAW/Discovery/Lionsgate documentary Huntwatch sheds light on the plight of harp seals like the one pictured above. © IFAW

Pristine white ice threatened by climate change, baby seals crying, the smell of boat diesel, gunshots, the crack of clubs, pools of red ice, helicopter blades thumping overhead, cameras snapping on rapid fire, ice breaking under foot, frigid waters too cold for human survival. The stakes are high for both the hunters and the watchers – get the shot and get out. One leaves with fur pelts, the other evocative images. This is Huntwatch.

Twelve years ago I saw the seal hunt on video for the first time. The footage was so shocking, so real it seemed like I was on the ice viewing the slaughter alongside the vulnerable, baby seals. Sick to my stomach, heartbroken and feeling protective of these beautiful creatures, the carnage was so violent I could not watch the gruesome hunt again.

The commercial hunt for baby harp seals in Atlantic Canada has been happening for centuries. Traditionally the seals’ oil was used to light lamps and their fur kept people warm in harsh climates. Today there does not seem to be much use for seal products. Government subsidies prop up the industry and keep it sputtering along.

The good news is the scale of the slaughter has seriously diminished. I remember a three year span in the early 2000’s where one million seals were killed. A Canadian Minister of Fisheries who wanted to eradicate the entire population famously said, “…The more they kill, the better I will love it.” Setting emotions aside; this mentality contradicts every conservation principle. Fortunately, the markets have dried up since then with an EU-wide ban on the importation of seal products leading the way. In 2015, 35,000 seals were killed compared to an average of 350,000 in previous years.

The hunt takes place in an incredibly remote area off the Atlantic coast of Canada. You need helicopters, survival suits, daily permits, stable ice and a fresh supply of courage to get there and long range cameras to capture what you see. My colleagues at International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) had been monitoring and documenting the hunt for 50 years to show officials what they witnessed was not humane; the ultimate goal was to end it altogether. Their efforts dubbed “Huntwatch” later became our movie title. 

IFAW’s Sheryl Fink observes the commercial harp seal hunt on Canada’s East Coast. © IFAW

Sheryl Fink is the modern day Seal Campaign Director and the female star of the film. It is easy to see she is the lone woman in a predominantly male environment, fearlessly trudging over unstable ice floes with only a wooden staff in her hand to check the ice and a camera around her neck while hunters around her are wielding guns, clubs and knives. When I check in to see how she felt about putting herself in this kind of danger she said, “I did not notice. I knew my team always had my back.” She tells the story of sealers driving an ATV directly at her as they were hauling away a trailer full of bloody fur pelts. Was she scared? “No, in hindsight maybe I should have been… but I just stood there with my arms crossed and stared at them.” This quiet bravery, persistence and heart were the inspiration for our documentary.

In 2008, the seed for the film started to grow. Looking through the video archives of IFAW in London, I came across a hidden gem. There was an old movie with our founder Brian Davies back in the 70’s, flying helicopters, sporting aviator glasses, diving under frozen ice and fighting the political system – all to save the baby seals. And this was just the tip of the iceberg; there was 40+ years of similar footage to pull from. Looking deeper there were - death threats, spy tactics, knife attacks and wrecked helicopters. Tirelessly fighting for the seals, Davies devoted his life to ending the hunt.

His story - IFAW’s founding story - the story of the birth of the modern animal welfare movement – needed to be shared with the world. My thinking evolved from, “I cannot watch this” to “…everyone needs to see this.” I was going to find a way to make a feature film.

After six years of research, negotiating, traveling, editing, interviewing and persistence, Huntwatch was born. As the primary producer and the production manager, my job was to manage the story, conduct interviews, sort logistics and keep the project on time and on budget. It was my first time working on a feature and it was not always easy. There were many ups and downs and the project almost stopped completely many times. Inspired by Brian and Sheryl’s tenacity; I never gave up. It is true you can accomplish anything if you believe in yourself and stick with it. 

Thanks to our partners at the Discovery Channel and Lionsgate Films, our film was broadcasted internationally on television and is now available for digital download in 20 languages.

The author Kerry Branon attends the Discovery Huntwatch premiere in September, 2016. © IFAW

During filming, we split into two teams -- one focused on the political firestorm in Europe and one capturing the sealing communities of Newfoundland. The main objective was to tell an honest story presenting both sides of the argument. Realizing these were just guys trying to earn a few dollars, I never felt animosity towards the seal hunters themselves; it was really a political issue.

Despite my personal views, after five decades of conflict, some bridges have ultimately been burned between animal welfare activists and seal hunters. Gaining the sealers’ perspective proved to be impossible for our team. No amount of research, emails, phone calls or connections gave us the access we needed; we were stonewalled. A memo was sent by a sealers association alerting everyone about our project and encouraging them not to cooperate. Of course no one would talk to us on camera. We were forced to pull the hunter’s perspective from archive footage and brought additional balance by interviewing pro-sealing politicians and a fur trader.

What will be next? It takes decades to win a campaign and the same grit and determination to document it. We are very near to witnessing the end of the commercial seal hunt and are now at the beginning stages of saving elephants from the ivory trade. It will take the same creativity, tenacity and bravery to get the job done, but I believe it is possible. In a few more years I would expect to see large scale, innovative solutions employed to stop poachers before they kill, leaving elephants free to roam the savannah with their families. You might also find an IFAW elephant documentary on your favorite digital platform or TV channel.

--KB

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Sheryl Fink, Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations