Can Canada’s embattled annual seal hunt be sustained?

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew
Can Canada’s embattled annual seal hunt be sustained?

Canada's controversial seal hunt has been vilified as unnecessarily cruel. It has been defended as vital, important and distinctly Canadian. It has been challenged and opposed and it has even been declared essentially dead.

The seal hunt began for another season in Newfoundland on Monday and, now more than ever, its future is in doubt.

Despite ongoing support from the federal and provincial governments, the seal hunt has garnered international attention for its more violent aspects. Despite an elevated hunting quota this year, questions swirl around its sustainability.

Is it possible to continue the century-old practice, specifically in light of an anti-sealing campaign and closing international markets? More to the point, should we?

Or is it time to end the hunt, buy the remaining sealers out of the industry and close up shop?

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador government, these questions are shadowed by misinformation presented by anti-sealing groups. The industry, worth over $55 million per year to the provincial economy is said to be sustainable, well-managed and even ecologically valuable.

Yet anti-sealing groups have countered that the hunt is violent, taking specific umbrage with the use of a pointed hakapik used to club the seal to death. Some also maintain that the hunt is loosely regulated and puts the seal population at risk. The arguments have accomplished a great deal to shape the public perception of the hunt and have led to the closing of some international markets.

A European Union ban on Canadian seal products hit the industry hard and is currently being appealed through the World Trade Organization.

[ Related: Annual East Coast seal hunt starts amid ongoing court case ]

In a recent interview with the Canadian Press, Humane Society International's Rebecca Aldworth said "the seal hunt is very much over."

She was referring to the closure of markets for seal products in the U.S., Europe and Russia and suggested that while the Canadian government was not ready to end the country's seal hunt, the international community was ready to do it for them.

The thought was echoed in a news release from the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW), which believes the end of the hunt is inevitable.

"This hunt has been on life support for 20 years. It will never come back to previous levels," director Sheryl Fink stated. "When will governments in Ottawa and St. John's start to think about the future, and help sealers transition out of this failed industry?"

The Canadian Sealers Association's point of view is well known. It maintains the hunt is a vital regional industry. The group says clubbing seals is a humane killing method when done properly, that young whitecoat seals are not allowed to be killed and that the seal population is thriving despite what naysayers claim.

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On Monday, the Canadian Sealers Association celebrated the government's decision to increase to quota of harp seals to 400,000, though it conceded that only 60,000 to 100,000 were likely to be taken this year. It also expressed optimism that an appeal against the EU’s "unfair" import ban would be successful.

Government statistics suggest that the harp seal population has tripled since 1970 and now stands at 5.6 million. Fewer than 100,000 are killed each year, though IFAW numbers suggest the number of seals caught reached 89,030 last year.

Based on those numbers, it is hard to say the hunt is not sustainable. As far as provincial industries go, it may even be invaluable. But sustainability expands beyond simple mathematics, and the industry is facing a shifting public landscape and a perception that is not easy to dismiss.

If the hunt is truly going to be sustainable, it has to find a permanent solution to its image problems. Doing away with the hakapik is the obvious first step. Animal hunts happen across Canada every year without being so vehemently challenged by international lobbyists. None of them employ a spiked club.

It won’t end the opposition to the hunt, but it is a step toward sustainability. If the industry is going to survive, it has to first be sustained.

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