Seal or No Seal

There are many famous animal rights no-nos: testing lipstick on bunnies, consigning elephants to the circus, racing greyhounds…but none (and we mean none) is quite as infamous as seal-clubbing. 

But in Canada, where some sealers rely on the yearly hunt for much-needed income, some people are saying that seal hunters aren’t as dastardly as animal rights activists make them out to be, we learned from a Reuters article yesterday.

A summary of the debate:

Charge: Clubbing seals is cruel: The fact that seals spasm after being clubbed, say animal rights advocates, is evidence of their suffering. Defense: From the Reuters piece:

Sealers describe the movements as muscle spasms and insist that a well-aimed blow with the blunt end of a hackapick club causes instantaneous death.

A new Canadian documentary on the hunt -- which takes the sealers' point of view -- shows a wild boar being slaughtered and then making the same movements when its throat is cut.

Charge: The harp-seal hunt is unsustainable.

Defense: The harp seal population off the east coast of Canada has tripled since the 1970s, and Canada’s fisheries minister has said that seal hunting helps control the numbers and protects fish.

Charge: Seal hunters are getting rich from pelt sales.

Defense: In places like the Magdalen Islands (a remote archipelago north of Prince Edward Island), some hunters make less than $10,000 (Canadian) per year—and half of that comes from the seal hunt.

And where do we here at Plenty stand on the debate? Far be it for us to opine before we know the whole story (okay, okay, sometimes we opine, well, just because it’s fun.) But in this case, we’ll need a little more information. Luckily for us, there’s that new Canadian documentary (called Seals, the Movie, appropriately). A review copy sure would be nice, eh?


Re: The Current, "Seal Or No Seal"

I have lived in Atlantic Canada and have observed the seal hunt for over 20 years...
I do know whereof I speak...

. Most of the seals killed are 'Beaters,' young harp seals, approximately 3-4 weeks old, that have completely shed their white coats. Maybe not "cuddly little critters" but still babies and defenceless.

. Clubbing is not a humane method of killing. It cannot be relied upon as a method of delivering immediate unconsciousness or death.

. Photographic evidence and personal observation show that sealers rarely check to confirm a seal is dead before skinning. The post mortem examination of seals by independent veterinarians has revealed that many seals may have been skinned whilst conscious.

. An International team of veterinary experts who studied the seal hunt found that both 'clubbing' and 'shooting' seals render the animals liable to high levels of suffering and are inherently inhumane methods of killing.

. Leading marine scientists, and indeed the sealing industry, have stated that the seal population is now believed to be in decline.

. Despite years of research, the only economically valuable parts of the seal are the pelts. Most of the carcass(the meat), is simply abandoned and left to rot on the ice, and 80 per cent of the blubber is discarded.

. The Canadian government has subsidized the commercial seal hunt over the years, from direct subsidies to sealers, boat subsidies, and sealers organizations, to tax exemptions and federally funded support services during the hunt, including Coast Guard ice breakers, extra RCMP officers, and DFO enforcement officers.

Significant amounts of taxpayer money continues to be spent to promote the seal hunt in Europe and elsewhere, to develop new markets, and to fund research into the development of new seal products.

The Canadian Government's regard for sealing as just another part of the fishery is reflected in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' language used to describe it ('catching seals', 'fishing for seals'). Taken as a whole, it appears that fishermen who hunt seals really believe that they are 'fishing', and that the seals are deserving of as much, or as little, consideration as they would extend to any other ocean target. To regard hundreds of thousands of young mammals solely as resources to be harvested, indicates a crudely instrumentalist understanding of animal life.

The 'official' government language used to describe the hunt consists of words such as: 'harvest' or 'harvesting', 'tools', 'resource', 'dispatch', 'replacement yield' all indicate a commodification of these marine mammals as if they were nothing more than lifeless or non-sentient resources here for the sealers.

Ethicists have always been divided about where we should draw the line in our treatment of animals, but there is a strong consensus that the infliction of suffering upon animals requires strong justification. To point to economic advantage is insufficient as a moral justification, and neither can any claim for subsistence reasonably apply to the seal hunt.

In Newfoundland, where over 90 percent of the hunters live, the economic contribution of the seal hunt is marginal. In fact, exports of seal products from Newfoundland account for less than one-tenth of one percent of the province’s total exports.

The claim that 6,000 East coast fishermen are employed in the seal hunt is very misleading. Any money earned is supplemental to fishing income and activity in the hunt is mostly "days" rather than weeks.

It is difficult to argue that there is a dependency on sealing when the government allows the closure of so many Newfoundland fish plants and permits huge amounts of Atlantic fish to be shipped to China for processing.

Canada is fortunate to have vast and diverse wildlife populations, but these animals deserve protection, not senseless slaughter. DFO is unreasonably partisan, and bears immense responsibility for failing to protect the seal population.

The Canadian government has a long history of mismanaging marine ecosystems, yielding to the short-term interests of the fishing and sealing industries at great cost to jobs and marine life.

DFO scientists only count the seal population every five any declines in population based on new birth counts this year could take up to 15 years or longer to be detected and verified. The methods used to monitor the hunt quotas fail to count seals that are wounded but escape to die later(struck and lost), seals killed by illegal hunting, and those that are killed for their organs and then discarded.

Population estimates don't consider other changes, like climate change, that could adversely affect the seal population. The government needs to better understand the major issues of global warming that go beyond mere changes in temperature.

Catastrophic events, like the break-up of the Arctic ice or the collapse of the Gulf Stream, are potentially devastating issues that require immediate study...But, government scientists continue to produce data that is overly optimistic, inaccurate and out of date.

Polls show that close to 80 percent of Americans and the vast majority of Europeans oppose Canada’s seal hunt. In fact, close to 70 percent of Canadians surveyed oppose the hunt completely, with even higher numbers opposing specific aspects of the hunt, such as killing young seals.

The time has come to end the seal hunt. The salient fact relating to the hunt is surely that it's hardly worth the contempt it is bringing to Canada.

The image of Canada is being destroyed by the obstinacy with which the government insists on perpetuating an outdated, degrading, and unprofitable exercise.

The behaviour of the Canadian government and the sealers, in the name of "rights and culture," will subsequently backfire.

It is time to halt this lamentable and archaic practice. The seal hunt is not just despicably cruel. It is criminal, immoral and out of control.

International action is now essential to preserve the ice seals in perpetuity.

The Canadian Animal Distress Network is an animal welfare organization dedicated to respond and lobby on behalf of wild animals of any species in distress. CADN seeks to educate the public to prevent cruelty to animals and to promote animal welfare and conservation policies that advance the well-being of wild animals and their relationship with people.

For more than 40 years, so-called "animal rights" groups have exploited the seal hunt issue with half-truths and sensationalism, and raised millions of dollars in the process.
The seal hunt has been more carefully observed and studied than any hunt on earth. No serious scientist pretends that the northwest Atlantic harpseal population is in any way endangered; it has actually almost tripled since the 1970s.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Journal has stated that at least 98% of the seals are killed humanely (i.e., instantly killed or rendered irreversibly unconscious) -- a level of humaneness probably unmatched by any hunt on earth.
Even Peter Singer, the father of the modern animal-rights movement, wrote in his classic book "Animal Liberation" that it is completely hypocritical to attack seal hunting while 95% of North Americans and Europeans eat BILLIONS of cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals each year.

As someone who has followed the Canadian seal hunt for over 15 years, I am pleased to see Kiera Butler write something logical and fair about the hunt. I am equally sorry that Patricia Gray responded to it with a lopsided and misinformed diatribe against the hunt so typical of extremist animal rights groups.

To debunk just a few of the points made by Ms. Gray:

1) The economics of the Canadian seal hunt are extremely important to the people of rural, coastal places: in some Newfoundland communities over 25% of households take part in the hunt, and among those people the hunt can account for 25-35% of their annual income. Ms Gray should consider what life would be like for her if her income were already below the Canadian average, and then it were cut by a third.
2) DFO does take climate change, sea ice conditions, and other factors into considerration when it sets quotas. This is why, as I write this (March 24th, 2007) the hunt quotas have not been determined. As managers of a hunt with all eyes of the world upon it, you can bet that DFO is doing its best work and that quotas are set conservatively.
3) That said, even if the seal hunt culls 300,000 animals, this represents a conservatively estimated 5% of the entire Harp seal population. Over the last 30 years as the hunt has continued, the Harp seal population has grown from 1.8 million to 5.6 million. How can Patricia Gray say that DFO fails to protect the seal population? More rhetoric!

4) The Canadian seal hunt is supported by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the largest and most
well-respected conservation organization in the world, who call for the sustainable use of wildlife when
their populations are abundant, which the seals most certainly are.

5) The hunt has been studied by the
Independent Veterinarians Working Group, headed by Pierre Yves Daoust, who declared that the club (or
"Hakapik") and also the rifle are appropriate tools for a humane hunt and that the hunt compares very
favourably to activities that take place in North American abattoirs.

I would also like to point out that it has been illegal to kill a whitecoat seal pup since 1987. The seals that are killed in the cull today, and for the last 20 years, are only those that are fully
weaned from their mothers.

Considering the rapid rate of growth in the east coast Harp seal herds, and the generally accepted fact that
the worlds fisheries are on the verge of collapse, the east coast ecosystem is plainly out of whack. I would
rather see a few more seals die quickly and their meat and pelts used to some benefit, than to see an entire herd possibly suffer the disease, predation, and starvation that nature doles out regularly when predator populations exceed the carrying capacity of
their environment.

The fact of the matter is that if the Harp Seal wasn't adorable, and if the hunt didn't take place in the open where it can be easily videotaped, if blood on snow wasn't so dramatic looking, animal rights groups would ignore this event. Why else do animal rights groups not give a darn about the 1.2 million deer killed in Germany every year, young calves kept in cages for the duration of their lives, the (unattractive) chickens that make up the staple of the American diet.

I am tired of hearing animal rights extremists talk about morality and ethics when their own organizations are clooectively raising close to a billion dollars on the backs of hard working people with so few economic options.

Elizabeth Gruodis

Hello Mr. Herscovici, I understand you are still associated with the Fur Council of Canada...And, Ms.Groudis, how are things at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans(DFO) these days?

For your information: In 1981, having observed the mass slaughter of baby seals(whitecoats)on the north shore beaches of the PEI National Park, by unlicensed and untrained fishermen...and having observed the bus loads of local children brought out to watch, I have taken a personal interest in the annual seal hunt and the cultural, and worldwide reaction to it.

I am a freelance writer and naturalist. I have lived in Atlantic Canada and have observed the seals and seal hunt for over 20 years. I have been on the ice and have been a member of numerous conferences and committees with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, and other authorities.

I am the Founder and President of the Canadian Animal Distress Network, the Prince Edward Island Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and the PEI Oil Spill Network. I have written marine mammal rescue contingency plans for Parks Canada and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals U.K.. I devote my life to the study of natural history and the Protection of wildlife.

The Canadian Animal Distress Network is an "animal welfare" organization(not animal rights), dedicated to respond and lobby on behalf of wild animals of any species in distress. CADN seeks to educate the public to prevent cruelty to animals and to promote animal welfare and conservation policies that advance the well-being of wild animals and their relationship with people. Furthermore, CADN neither solicits nor accepts donations.

Re: The Canadian government's claim that the hunt is humane: The most recent veterinary evidence showing the hunt is inhumane is from an independent, international team of five veterinary experts who studied the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2001. The panel included experts in veterinary neurology and marine mammals, as well as a past chair of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. The veterinarians studied the hunt from the air and from the ground, viewed videotape evidence, and performed random post-mortems on seal carcasses abandoned on the ice flows. 'The Burdon Report' concluded that the hunt "is resulting in considerable and unacceptable suffering." Supporting the Burdon Report are two earlier studies, which also show that a high percentage of seal carcasses examined did not have enough cranial injury to guarantee unconsciousness when skinned. 'The Simpson Report' in 1967 and 'the Jordan Report' in 1978 similarly found that "examined skulls had unfractured crania."

In the light of this, the 'The Linzey Report'(an international group of academics, including ethicists, philosophers and theologians) asks the question which might not unnaturally be asked: "on what grounds can the Canadian Government claim that the hunt is ‘humane’?" The answer is that it relies on a study by Dr Pierre-Yves Daoust(commissioned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), a veterinarian from the Atlantic Veterinary College(I have worked with Dr. Daoust for many years), and four other veterinarians. It concluded that "the majority of seals taken during this hunt (at best, 98% in the work reported here) are killed in an acceptably humane manner."

Whereas the Burdon Report addresses the question of whether seals were likely(to have been) conscious or unconscious at the time they were skinned, using post-mortem examination of skulls, in marked contrast, the figure cited from the Daoust report represents the number of seals clubbed or shot that were brought on board sealing vessels while still conscious. That number ignores any and all animal suffering that occurs between the time animals are clubbed or shot until they eventually reach a sealing vessel, usually on the end of a hook or gaff.

Dr. Daoust conducted the study on board a sealing vessel in the presence of DFO enforcement officers when sealers knew not only that they were being observed, but also the uses to which such observations would be put.

Dr. Daoust accepts that the presence of observers "may have incited sealers to hit the seals more vigorously." If this were true, it would mean that less seals, or a smaller percentage, would be skinned alive when the hunters were being observed than would occur when the seals were hunted in the absence of observers.

In reviewing videotaped evidence provided by IFAW during the 2001 hunt, the Daoust Report accepts that most hunters...failed to palpate the skull or check the corneal reflex before proceeding to hook or bleed the seal, or go to another seal.

Even with observers, the numbers of seals skinned alive is unacceptable from a humane or moral point of view, there should be zero tolerance.

Regarding the comparison to abattoirs, according to Dr Ian Robinson, a British member of the 2001 international veterinary panel: "The Canadian Government insists that the seal hunt is an animal production industry like any other. They say that it might not be pretty, but basically, it is just like any abattoir except on the ice. But we found obvious levels of suffering which would not be tolerated in any other animal industry in the world."

Regarding the comparison with poultry is even more revealing since laws in Canada relating to
poultry transportation and slaughter are poorly enforced at national level, and there are no laws regulating the treatment of birds at the farm level.

Perhaps the time has come when 'Canadians' should be talking about morality and ethics.

I wish Ms. Butler would have done more research and given some time to the other side of this issue instead of blindly believing fur industry propoganda.

Interesting that Alan Herscovici didn't reveal that he is one of the leaders of the fur industry lobby....Right now the ice is melting so quickly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that nearly 100% of the seal pups, who depend on the ice, are dying. The hunt is far from being "sustainable". The seals are hurt twice, first by global warming and then by a commercial hunt for their fur.

Many scientists agree current kill levels are not sustainable. A 2006 study by Professor Stephen Harris from the School of Biological Sciences at Bristol University asserts that the Canadian management regime for harp seals does not apply a precautionary principle and threatens the survival of seal populations. The report, entitled “Harp seal populations in the northwestern Atlantic: modelling populations with uncertainty” is available at

To read more rebuttals of the mis-leading and dis-honest arguments put forth by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, please see The Truth about the Canadian Seal Hunt: A Response to the Canadian Department of Fisheries at is a special section with lots of info on seals and sealing.

Fur Commission USA represents the fur farming industry, in which wild animals such as mink and fox are intensively confined before being electrocuted, gassed or poisoned for their skins. Why should we believe a fur industry trade group's claims that the seal slaughter is humane and "sustainable"? Just as I don't believe the oil and gas industry groups that say global warming isn't real, the timber industry groups that say clear-cutting is "sustainable", or the factory farming groups that say factory farming is "humane," I don't exactly trust the fur industry lobby either.

Regarding the sale of pelts to markets in Norway, Russia and China...Dion Dakins, sales and marketing manager for Atlantic Marine Products, recently said the price of furs, such as seal, will likely plunge this year. None of the 3,500 seal pelts offered in Copenhagen sold. Atlantic Marine Products sold only 600 of the 10,000 seal pelts the company offered at North American auctions. Regarding blubber: 80 per cent of the blubber is discarded... There is a limited market for seal meat...98% of the meat is unaccounted for, simply abandoned and left on the ice to rot. The claim that the whole animal is utilized is a gross distortion of the truth. The market is driven only by the Canadian government itself.