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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 April 2005, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Canada's seal hunt stokes passion
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Seal hunt
Pictures of the cull are guaranteed to anger animal welfare groups
It has become a familiar sight at this time of year: Canadian hunters clubbing passive looking seals on the ice floes, the blood dramatically spattering the pristine white ice.

It is an image almost guaranteed to provoke protest.

But for the fishermen who clamber aboard their vessels for the seasonal cull, it is a misunderstood tradition spanning more than 150 years.

This year the hunt's opponents are turning up the pressure on the Canadian government.

The American Humane Society is calling for a boycott of Canadian seafood products, a multi-billion-dollar cross-border industry.

It remains to be seen how effective the influential society's boycott will be.


Meanwhile, a long-time opponent of the hunt, the International Fund For Animal Welfare (Ifaw) and other groups have been sending observers to areas where the cull will continue until the end of May.

Seal hunt
Bashing them over the head is akin to smacking a puppy on the head with a hammer
Phyllis Campbell-McRae
Tempers have already flared between protesters and sealers and in the first few days of the hunt some activists were arrested.

The groups are more determined than ever to document what Ifaw calls the largest commercial slaughter of marine mammals anywhere in the world.

Ifaw's Canadian director, Phyllis Campbell-McRae, says it is simply barbaric and cruel.

"Bashing them over the head is akin to smacking a puppy on the head with a hammer. Autopsy evidence and veterinary reports prove that many of these animals are still alive at the point when they are skinned," she says.

Roger Simon, a hunt co-ordinator for the government, insists that these days the hunt is humane and cites a study by the Canadian Veterinary Association as saying that "minimal suffering" is involved.

Resurgent markets

The trotting out of contradictory statistics and evidence by both sides is becoming as familiar a ritual as the hunt itself.

The impassioned rhetoric has increased in volume since the controversial cull rebounded about 10 years ago.

The Canadian Veterinary Association stated that 98% of seals are clubbed in a humane manner
Roger Simon
Hunt co-ordinator
Back in the early 1980s the market for seal fur collapsed in the wake of protests and European and American bans on the sale of white fur from very young harp seal pups.

It is now illegal in Canada for those newborn animals to be killed.

The hunt's resurrection is mainly tied to fashion.

The largest markets are to be found in China, Russia and Norway. Seal pelts turn over these days for about $45 each, which represents a doubling of price in four years.

Ifaw says the selling of pelts contributes only to what it scathingly refers to as a "luxury non-essential fur market".

But the whisper out of Europe's fashion houses is that there is growing interest in seal fur and that it is becoming acceptable again.


The two sides in the debate also clash over how environmentally and economically sustainable the hunt is.

The Canadian government says the cull is not tied to markets or prices, but to the health of the seal population.

Seals on ice floe near St Johns in Canada
Canadian officials say the seal population is not endangered
Its figures place the number of seals at around five million. As a result, it claims that a three-year cull amounting to a little under a million seals should be sustainable.

But Ifaw rejects the sustainability argument and disputes the government's figures, saying they ignore up to a further half-million seals also taken by Greenland, Russia and Norway.

Professor Brad DeYoung, an oceanographer at Newfoundland's Memorial University, says the truth lies somewhere in between.

Although he questions the government's figures, he thinks the hunt is sustainable.

"Even if the seal population were to decline to four million, it would still be twice what it was 30 years ago. And even then the herd would still rebound."

But once again, the economic benefits from the cull are open to debate and interpretation.

"The seal hunt contributes about half a percent to the GDP of Newfoundland," asserts Ifaw's Phyllis Campbell-McRae.

"This is not something keeping vast numbers of people in long-term employment," she says.

Foreign outcry

Seal hunt co-ordinator Roger Simon, while acknowledging it is not a main source of revenue for people in Atlantic Canada, still characterises the commercial hunt as important for fishing communities and for the aboriginal Inuit people further north.

"The comeback of the industry is definitely helping the communities that were hurt by the original collapse of the fur market and the moratorium on the cod fishery."

Professor Brad DeYoung agrees that the hunt does provide needed income to some.

"There are a lot of rural communities here where people are basically making a subsistence living. An extra $10,000 may not seem much to somebody living in Paris. But for somebody trying to stay in work, that's half their income."

Canadians who have heard more of these nuanced arguments seem more hesitant to condemn the hunt in the forthright way much of the international community does.

A shoulder-shrugging, siege mentality pervades the country as it weathers the international outcry and condemnation.

Mexico has just passed a resolution condemning the seal hunt, and the Belgian government is considering legislation banning the importation of seal products.

Graphic scenes from a seal hunt

Canada seal hunt gets under way
30 Mar 05 |  Americas
Canada completes main seal cull
14 Apr 04 |  Americas
Canada seal hunt draws protests
13 Apr 04 |  Americas

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