Despite strong opposition and a vanishing market, commercial seal slaughter begins in Canada

On the frozen ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a sealer moves in to kill a seal pup with a hakapik -- a spiked club. The hunt takes place annually in the spring.  Photo: c. IFAWThe 2013 commercial seal hunt opened earlier this week off the shores of Newfoundland, Canada. This year will mark my first time in 12 years that I haven’t been at the hunt as an observer.

Documenting the seal hunt is an expensive operation.  The cost is even greater when the number of boats participating is few, and the offshore distances to be flown to find the hunt are large. Only 26 boats reported hailing out on opening day this year; the ice is far off shore.

The successes we’ve achieved for seals thanks to our documentation have paid off. However, as a non-profit organization, it is important that our donors’ dollars are put to the best possible use to protect animals.  

All of our campaign activities must be evaluated based on the benefit to animals. 

After 18 consecutive years of documenting Canada’s commercial seal hunt, we know there will be cruelty happening on the ice.

We know seals will be hooked through the face while alive and conscious. 

We know it, because we see it year after year, and because it is perfectly legal under the Canadian regulations.­

We know the commercial seal hunt is inherently inhumane.

The question we must ask is: what will be gained by obtaining more footage of the same? 

The answer is, potentially very little. 

So this year we are turning our focus away from the ice floes and onto the politicians on Parliament Hill, in attempt to change the dialogue that surrounds commercial sealing in Canada. 

Here, the seal hunt is a political issue loaded with rhetoric, misinformation and emotion that far surpasses the reality of Canada’s commercial seal hunt.  

The fact is, government continues to support commercial sealing for the sake of politics and not economics.

Commercial sealing is not an economically viable industry, in Canada or anywhere else for that matter.

In 2012, the landed value of the Canadian commercial seal hunt was $1.6 million CAD, yet required a $2 million government loan in order to proceed.  Despite assurances that the loan was a “one-shot deal”, another $3.6 million bailout loan to the sealing industry was announced for 2013. 

These loans are not short-term necessities to keep a struggling industry afloat, and it’s preposterous to suggest that the sealing industry is merely experiencing is a short-term “marketing challenge.”

Since 1995 over $34 million has been poured into trying to revive Canada’s commercial seal hunt.

And to what end?

A total of 34 countries now have banned trade in seal products, and the value of the hunt is near an all-time low. 

Sealer participation is also dwindling, with only 400-700 sealers actively involved – a far cry from the government’s claims that 14,000 sealers rely on the hunt.

In recent years, only 26-28 boats have set out on the opening day of the Newfoundland hunt.

Just as we are forced to evaluate the costs and benefits of documenting the seal hunt, fishermen too must decide whether it is worth the cost, hazard, and risk of going sealing.

With recent prices offered for seal pelts remaining in the $20-$25 range even with government financial support – for many of them, it just isn’t worth it.

I’ve always found it remarkable that the main driver behind Canada’s commercial seal hunt since the 1990s has never been economics, but politics.

Prevailing wisdom dictates that political parties in Canada must continue to proclaim vociferously their support for the sealing industry, and that to fail to do so would cost them votes in the Atlantic Provinces. 

Sensibly questioning the future of this dying industry will predictably result in accusations of traitorous heresy – or worse – of being “anti-Newfoundland” – something no politician dares risk.

But the political rhetoric surrounding the seal hunt far exceeds the reality. 

It seems unlikely that the Harper government will make gains in Atlantic Canada based on the seal hunt issue, and it may be at risk of losing votes in other parts of the country as a result.

The largest show of federal government support for the seal hunt comes in the form of Canada’s challenge of the European Union Regulation on seal products, currently before the World Trade Organization.

However, even if the WTO panel decision is favourable to Canada (and Norway, who is a co-complainant), it will be a matter of “winning the battle, but losing the war,”  at a cost of tens of millions of dollars – dollars that are going into the pockets of international trade lawyers rather than to fishing communities that have historically benefitted from the seal hunt.

The EU was not a large market for seal products prior to the 2009 Regulation, and it likely never will be, regardless of the outcome of the WTO challenge.

So the question remains: why do Canadian politicians continue to support an economically unviable industry with little future?

Is promoting and defending the internationally-despised, unnecessary business of shooting and clubbing immobile, three-week-old animals for their fur (which continues to be the main driver behind this hunt, despite ongoing attempts to market oil and meat products) ... is this really the best we can offer to spur economic growth in remote Atlantic communities? 

By turning our focus away from the ice floes, and towards Parliament Hill, we are encouraging politicians from all political parties to consider Canada’s  commercial seal hunt with a fresh perspective, free from the defensive rhetoric of the past. 

It’s okay to acknowledge our investment in the commercial seal hunt has not paid off.  But it’s not acceptable to continue to waste Canadian  tax dollars in attempt to prolong the death of the sealing industry.

Canadians – including Atlantic Canadians - deserve better, and surely our politicians can do better too.


For more information about our efforts to end the Canadian commercial seal hunt, visit our campaign page.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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