The bloody harvest as biggest seal cull for 50 years begins in Canada
By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
14th April 2004
"It is horrible to see the aftermath of this slaughter. There is blood everywhere. Every few feet as you walk across the ice, you pass by large pools of blood and carcasses lined up in open graves. Their eyes stare up at you. It's a dirty little secret the Canadian government doesn't want you to know.
"The sealers don't take the carcasses, because the meat is practically worthless. So they leave them to rot on the ice, or dump them in the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of them. Rotting because all the sealers want is the skins."
Those were the words of Rebecca Aldworth, a woman who grew up in a Newfoundland fishing community where, every spring, men from the town would take to the ice floes to club to death baby seals and take their skins.
Now, as the biggest seal hunt for 50 years takes place off the coast of eastern Canada, Ms Aldworth spends her time trying to draw public attention to the hunt.
This year her job is more difficult than ever. The hunt taking place on the so-called "front" off the Newfoundland coast is largely out of the public eye. Campaigners claim that the Canadian federal authorities, aware of the controversy created by images of seals being battered by hunters, have, in effect, scotched their efforts to witness the hunt by refusing to provide them with permits.
An estimated 140,000 harp seals were due to have been killed by late yesterday with no media or independent observers present to record the hunt. An additional 100,000 seals will be killed over the coming days by hunters armed with high-powered rifles and clubs known as hakapiks.
Two decades ago, activists including Brigitte Bardot brought an effective end to the trade in seal skin products with a campaign that created a global outcry. In recent years, the hunt has steadily recovered, boosted by new demand for seal fur products in places such as Eastern Europe. This year, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has issued the largest quota for more than a generation. The last time Canadian hunters killed more than 350,000 animals was in 1956.
The hunters accuse their largely urban-based critics of ignoring the economic practicalities of life in marginal communities.
Fishermen in Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence, where the first phase of the hunt finished 10 days ago after killing 98,000 seals, say the seal harvest brings a much-needed boost to families' incomes. The federal authorities also dispute accusations that the hunt is inhumane.
The DFO says that regulations introduced in recent years ensure that the animals are dead before they are skinned. New guidelines also mean that animals less than three weeks old and still with white fur are not killed. Steve Outhouse, a DFO spokesman, said that a Canadian Veterinary Medical Association study found that 98 per cent of the seals were killed "in a medically humane manner with the minimum of pain".
Yesterday Mr Outhouse said the DFO had done all it could to provide permits to those wanting to witness the hunt and had provided such licences to a BBC film crew. "The hunt is done in a very transparent way," he said.
Ms Aldworth, a campaigner with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has visited the hunt for the last five years. In a speech she made last year outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC, she claimed most Canadians agreed with her that the cull is barbaric.
"Many of you are probably wondering how Canadians can support this kind of cruelty and waste," she said. "The people inside that embassy will try to tell you that they represent Canadians on this issue. Well they don't. Because the solid majority of Canadians are opposed to this slaughter, and 85 per cent believe that seals under a year of age should be protected from any hunting at all. Canadians have held rallies, have called their members of parliament, have signed petitions, and have sent letters. But our government refuses to listen."