IFAW's history working to end Canada's East Coast commercial seal hunt

28 March 2019

For over 20 years, the month of March has been synonymous with the Canadian commercial seal hunt for me. For the majority of these years, I travelled to the East Coast of Canada as part of IFAW’s observation team, to witness and document the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seal pups. As mother seals are now giving birth to their soft, whitecoated pups, my thoughts turn to the progress made over the past 50 years of IFAW’s campaign to bring an end to the cruel and unnecessary slaughter, and the challenges that still lie ahead.

IFAW has been fighting to end the atrocities of the Canadian seal slaughter since 1969, when Brian Davies first founded our organization. Our first major victory came in 1982, when Europe voted in favour of a ban on the import of whitecoat harp seal and blueback hooded seal skins, a devastating blow to the Canadian sealing industry. Combined with the threat of an IFAW-led boycott of Canadian seafood, the Canadian government banned the killing of whitecoat seals, and the sealing industry was all but dead.

But when the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s, putting tens of thousands of fishermen out of work, the government of Canada saw a political opportunity. Blaming seals for ‘eating all the fish’, the Minister of Fisheries increased the quota for harp seals and introduced subsidies to revive the sealing industry, which would eventually grow to cost Canadian taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. 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.

Once again our team took to the ice, documenting the cruelty and wastefulness. We took our evidence to Europe, where we successfully campaigned for an import ban on all commercial seal products from non-indigenous hunts. A Russian ban further closed off 90% of the export market for Canadian seal pelts. And when sealing nations Canada and Norway challenged the European ban before the World Trade Organization, IFAW rallied our efforts in support of a successful defense, firmly solidifying one of the greatest victories for animal welfare of all time.

Today, we remain committed to ending this cruel but dying practice, by raising awareness, continuing to ensure global markets remained closed to seal products, and advocating for Canadian policies that will end the East coast seal hunt and provide economic opportunities for Atlantic Canadian communities.

And with your help, we’ve been successful: the number of seals killed has dropped 83% in the last decade, saving almost 4 million seal pups from a cruel and unnecessary death. The value of the seal hunt has dropped by 96%, from $34 million CAD in 2006 to a mere

$1.8 million CAD in 2018. And the number of seal hunters has dropped by 91.5%, with only a few hundred individuals taking part in recent years.

We’ve made great progress, but our work is far from finished. Fishermen and politicians continue to blame seals for overfishing and fisheries mismanagement, calling for more seals to be killed and more sealing licences to be issued. We cannot allow this to happen.

We know that the only path forward is to learn to co-exist with seals. This is not something that many of us have much experience with: for more than a century, seal populations have been heavily overexploited for their oil and fur. We are only now beginning to see what recovery of healthy, pre-exploitation levels populations of these animals looks like. Harp seals are not the competitors for fish that many fishermen perceive them to be: in fact, we know that healthy and abundant seal populations are normal, and necessary, in healthy and resilient marine ecosystems.

We know that individual animals matter to conservation. IFAW’s work to rescue, rehabilitate, and release wild animals means that we need to create policies that will provide secure environments and habitats in which animals can flourish.

We know that achieving and protecting our victories for animals can be a long game. Changing outdated attitudes and policies towards wildlife is not an easy process, and it takes time and commitment. Our fresh thinking, bold action, and persistence, is what results in progress.

Together, we can make a difference for seals. Please let the Prime Minister of Canada know that the time has come to end the cruel, unnecessary and wasteful seal slaughter on the East Coast of Canada once and for all.

PS. If you would like to learn more about IFAW’s history on this campaign, be sure to download the award winning documentary, HUNTWATCH.

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