Canada's Annual Seal Slaughter

An adult seal and pup resting on the ice. (Photo: David Boily / AFP-Getty Images)

Spring is approaching in the northern latitudes and one perennial event that Canadians pay little attention to domestically but gets lots of international media coverage is about to get underway: the annual mass slaughter of seals.

This grotesque spectacle begins in an almost ritual fashion at the end of March. "Hunters" club the seal pups to death then strip off the pelts with mundane efficiency. This is not nearly as deplorable though as the near absolute absence of a national public debate over the morality of the hunt. The silence across the land is deafening.

The issue appears too hot to address in the "people's" House of Commons, and few if any politicians wish to take a public position on it. As if swept under the ice floes for far too long, the images of wholesale gore, splattered blood on ice banks, have evoked disgust and outrage throughout the civilized world.

The barbaric primitiveness of the hunt-slaughter, or cull, contrasts jarringly with the "nice guy" image Canada wishes to project abroad. Not long ago, I attended the D.C. environmental film festival and after a screening at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., a high-ranking diplomat invited me to chat with him over coffee. Beforehand, he graciously gave me a tour of the impressive building. I noticed the images of seals on paintings and Inuit sculptures and carvings that adorned the walls. This near reverence of these sea mammals and their beauty depicted so stunningly in art form, seemed in sharp contrast and in total contradiction to the reality of the seal slaughter taking place off the coast of Newfoundland.

Right now, the P.R. machinery is working overtime to deflect and stifle worldwide criticism of the seal hunt. Canadian diplomats and officials in Ottawa are busy sparring with the European Union parliament, which has denounced the hunt. Aside from the usual invective exchanges between activists worldwide and the minister of fisheries and oceans in Ottawa, the usual barrage of embassy press releases that depict the hunt as "humane" and crucial to the well-being of local communities is underway.

Yet how can Canada continue to preach and peddle its green image internationally and still carry out the mass slaughter of seals? Scientists of dubious credentials are hired by government bureaucrats to issue studies justifying the annual butchery. Just what impact the sudden diminishment of the seal population over several weeks has on the overall ecosystem and its fauna is simply unknown.

One does not need to be an expert in environmental studies to see that there is an impact and not only on the seal population but also other species such as their predators, the endangered polar bears. Furthermore, those who advocate the seal hunt have yet to produce a comprehensive report about the impact of global warming on the seal population as a whole. Perhaps Ottawa will come up with such a study soon.

David Lavigne, a scientific advisor to the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Ottawa says, "Prudence would say you reduce the number of animals killed to allow these animals to have some chance in the face of global warming, which is contributing to high levels of pup mortality." But appeals by those opposed to the seal hunt fall on deaf ears and despite the perils of warming sea temperatures on the overall seal population the hunt goes on.

Meanwhile, a mini trade war is brewing. It looks to be more than just a minor spat. Over a week ago, outraged by the seal hunt, the German minister of agriculture proposed to bring a bill in front of the Bundestag banning the importation of sealskins or any related products from Canada. Sure enough, as the ice beings to melt, Ottawa took immediate counter-measures.

A Canadian member of parliament from Newfoundland, the province that benefits the most from the seal trade, now seeks to forbid the importation of German boar and dear meat. This diplomatic tit for tat is unlikely to stop the seal hunt. However, the issue is nevertheless a very hot one in Europe. Germany, as mentioned above, is considering a ban on seal products; Belgium has already banned them. And Britain is pushing for a European Union wide ban. In legitimate self-defense, Canada accused Germany of hypocrisy, saying basically that the killing or hunting of boars and deer is inhuman.

Certainly one can argue that the annual systematic slaughter of the seals for pelts and meat is an industry based upon an economic imperative. The livelihoods of thousands of locals living in Newfoundland depend on it. However, the seal hunt is hardly a sustainable practice in the long term. If the hunt continues, at some point the seal population will be pushed to its limits (just like the cod stocks that were over fished and have now virtually collapsed) and a free fall decline. Hence, the economic reasoning that underpins this outdated practice is invalid, and furthermore, will eventually drive the seals and their predators closer toward extinction.

The hunting of boars and deer on the other hand, just like the hunting of bears, elk, or moose (a common practice in Canada) is mostly a sporting activity in Germany. It's not an industry but more of a traditional pastime. This type of hunt is not mainly driven by monetary gain. Therefore, the killing is not as systematic a slaughter as the seal hunt. Moreover, as we all know, the border between the needed revenue for the hunters and the greed of the fur industry is a blurred one. Secondly, seal pups are bludgeoned to death and skinned alive. How "humane" is that? Shooting an animal or killing it with one blow seems like a much better way to go, as every self-respecting hunter well knows.

According to Lavigne, a sustainable quota of 250,000 to 335,000 was set for  last year's hunt. This year, however, it may be more. The upcoming slaughter will do incalculable damage to Canada's international image, and the proposed European Union wide ban—even the mere hint of one—will likely deal a heavy economic blow to this unnecessary slaughter.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Michael Werbowski.