Study pointing to decline in seal pups spurs renewed call to end controversial hunt

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The annual seal hunt off the East Coast each spring always brings a spasm of protest but expect this year's hunt to attract more than the usual attention.

A new study that says climate change-induced thinning of the sea ice has increased the death rate of Harp seal pups is making international headlines.

A story in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Friday said Canada is facing fresh calls to shut down the commercial seal hunt.

"The kind of mortality we're seeing in eastern Canada is dramatic," said researcher David Johnston of Duke University's Marine Lab. "Entire year classes may be disappearing from the population in low ice years. Essentially all of the pups die."

The research found that satellite records revealed that since 1979, ice cover has declined by as much as six per cent every decade. According to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, up to 80 per cent of seal pups born in 2011 may have died because of the lack of ice.

"Harp seals have evolved to rely on stable winter sea ice as a place to give birth and nurse their young until the pups can swim and hunt on their own," said the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which co-authored the study. "The new study is the first to demonstrate that all four harp seal breeding areas _ not just those in the Northwest Atlantic _ are being affected by deteriorating ice conditions."

The fund said one federal fisheries scientist has recommended a reduction in the hunt quota for this year, but that is not enough. Canada should work towards abolishing the commercial seal hunt, compensate the hunters and retrain them for other jobs, it said.

"There is no justifiable reason for it to continue, and all the reason in the world why it should end," the group said.

The annual seal hunt has been an international sore spot for Canada for decades. The European Union has banned harp seal products, except for those from Inuit sources and Russia recently banned the import of harp seal pelts, the Guardian reported.

The hunt regularly attracts protesters who venture onto the moving ice to confront the seal hunters, who are mainly from Newfoundland and Labrador. Sir Paul McCartney and then-wife Heather Mills famously were photographed posing with a baby seal on the ice a few years ago.

But Canada has staunchly defended the hunt as an important part of Newfoundland culture and an income source for participants, while insisting it's much more humane than in the past.

Seal hunter Jack Troake of Twillingate, N.L., who's ventured on the ice since 1952, told Postmedia News he's witnessed changes to ice conditions and seal populations but isn't convinced reduced ice is exclusively to blame for the decline of pup numbers.

"It's not that I don't give a rat's ass (about ice levels)," Troake said. "There is something drastically wrong with the harp seals, I can tell you that, but I don't think it's because of ice conditions. These animals are pretty smart and cagey and they'll go off until they find the proper ice."