There is a solemn cloud that envelops me this time of year and it has done so for the past two decades. Each new year summons a recurring tradition that is best left in the past but which stubbornly continues to this day: the Canadian commercial seal hunt.
News has already reached me that the commercial seal hunt in the Magdalen Islands opened last week, an indication that the main portion of Canada’s commercial seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland will begin in a few weeks’ time. Though thankful of the progress made over the past several years to reduce the scale of the hunt, it is a recurring reminder that there remains much to be done.
History of the seal hunt
IFAW has been fighting to end the the commercial Canadian seal hunt since 1969 when Brian Davies founded the organization. Our first major victory came in 1983 when Europe banned the import of whitecoat harp seal and blueback hooded seal skins. Following continued pressure from the public and the threat of an IFAW-led boycott of Canadian seafood, Canada banned the killing of whitecoat seals in 1987. And with that, the sealing industry was all but dead.
Everything quickly changed when the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s, putting tens of thousands of fishermen out of work. Seeing a political opportunity to blame seals for the disappearance of cod (a theory scientifically debunked time and again), the government of Canada increased the quota for harp seals and introduced subsidies to revive the dying sealing industry. With an allowable catch of 400,000 animals, the Canadian commercial seal hunt became the largest slaughter of a marine mammal anywhere in the world, costing Canadian taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The seal hunt today
A lack of demand for seal products, changing climate conditions and actions by the sealing industry itself—all have played a part in drastically reducing the commercial hunt to levels observed in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, every spring brings the birth of harp seal pups, and for too many, their consequent slaughter. In contrast to recent years, the ice conditions this year appear to have been favourable for harp seal mothers to give birth to their pups in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. According to reports, seals can easily be seen within 5km (3 miles) of land. Though this is a welcome sight indeed, more ice also brings the grim reality of easy access to those pups by land-based hunters. The lives of tens of thousands of seal pups will likely be tragically lost, mere weeks after they are born.
The federal government still actively provides the location of seal herds for these same hunters, as well as financial support for the sealing industry for promotion of seal products well as market development. There are also several government-supported projects underway in the Magdalen Islands this year, though thankfully most of them appear to be smaller in scale, with a focus on fully utilizing the animals killed, a stark change from 2013 when hunters wasted the pelts of 6,000 seals killed by throwing them overboard or leaving them on the ice.
2022 seal hunt: what to expect
It remains to be seen how the sealing industry will fare on the whole. Despite ongoing financial support from the Canadian government, the global market for seal products remains scarce, with the landed value of a seal pelt reaching only CAD$27/skin, a far cry from prices once as high as CAD$102. Markets for seal products have been in steep decline since 2006, with little hope of returning. Without ongoing government subsidies and political support, it seems evident that on a commercial basis, this industry has run its course.
Economics aside, and perhaps more concerning, are the ongoing calls by the Newfoundland fisheries union (and the politicians under their influence) for a massive cull of seals off the East coast of Canada. The usual complaint: there are too many seals eating too many fish. But, rest assured, there is no seal overpopulation. Seals, fish, and other marine creatures have all co-existed for millennia without the need for human-driven “management.” Claims of seal overpopulation deliberately (and conveniently) choose the lowest seal population estimates ever observed (usually the early 1970s) as their baseline. Harp seal populations in Atlantic Canada are recovering, not “exploding,” while changing ice conditions continue to add uncertainty to the seals’ future.
After decades of studies trying to link seal predation to cod stock decline, we now have ample scientific evidence that harp seal predation was not responsible for the collapse of Atlantic cod. It is clear that seals are not preventing the recovery of cod stocks, and a seal cull would not help cod stocks to recover. Misinformation suggesting otherwise still runs rampant, but the science on this has been very clear.
Perhaps unaware of the decades of fisheries science on this issue, Clifford Small, a new Member of Parliament from Newfoundland, has introduced a bill calling for a federal seal control program. Political interference and tensions in the application of Canadian fisheries science is almost as much of a tradition in Canada as the seal hunt itself.
A call for sustainable solutions
So the question remains: will the Government of Canada cave to the demands of the fishing industry and keep Canada stuck in the past by allowing a risky and unscientific seal cull? Will they continue to waste millions of dollars in an effort to revive an industry for unnecessary and unwanted seal products? Or will they provide support for desperately needed environmental initiatives in Atlantic Canada that could make the removal of marine plastic debris and ghost gear an economically viable industry?
-Sheryl Fink, IFAW Canada Campaigns Director