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The cruellest marine mammal hunt in the world

The Guardian

1st December 2003

Despite protests from animal rights activists, there is no sign that Canada's annual seal hunt will come to an end, says Anne McIlroy

Animal rights activists describe Canada's annual seal hunt as the largest, and possibly cruellest, marine mammal hunt in the world. Each year, thousands of baby harp seals are clubbed or shot, usually for their pelts.
Sealers on the country's east coast - especially in the province of Newfoundland - say that the hunt is an important and environmentally sustainable tradition helping 12,000 families to make ends meet in what is one of Canada's poorest regions.

For now, the hunt does not appear to be in any danger of abolition, despite anti-sealing campaigns in Canada, the US, the UK and throughout Europe.

The Canadian government, which regulates the hunt, has increased the number of animals that can be hunted. It argues that the seal population, which last year stood at more than 5,000,000, is healthy.

The new quota allows for 975,000 harp seals to be killed over three years. By May this year, around 270,000 harp seals had been hunted.

But Rebecca Aldworth, seals campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is doing her best to change that. She says most Canadians are unaware that sealers are still clubbing and shooting baby seals.

In the 80s, protests involving celebrities such as actor Brigitte Bardot led to the protection of newborn harp seals with their pristine white fur. However, the creatures moult within two to three weeks of birth, and then become fair game. The federal fisheries department says that, by then, they have been weaned and are independent.

Ms Aldworth says that not only are 95% of the animals killed less than three months old, but also that up to 42% of them are skinned alive and many carcasses are left to rot in the ice or water.

She is convinced that, if Canadians understood what was happening, they would put pressure on the government to outlaw the cull. Part of the problem, she argues, is that footage of seals being killed is so gruesome few television networks will run it.

However, stories about wounded animals left to die on the ice, and other cruelties, usually make the news at least once year, making it clear how difficult it is for the federal government to enforce rules on humane killing.

This leaves the seal hunters on the defensive, even though a royal commission following the protests of the 80s ruled that clubbing seals with a tool known as a hakapick was a humane way to kill them.

The Canadian Sealers Association says that it is committed to a "responsible, respectful and renewable" industry, according to its executive director, Tina Fagan. She says it is like any other industry that uses animals in consumer products.

Most of the pelts are exported to Scandinavia, Russia and Western Europe. The association's web site posts pictures of Newfoundland families that depend on the money they make from seals.

"I am a sealer and my family has gone sealing for generation," says Wilfred Alyward. "Ever since the first settlers came to Newfoundland, sealing has been an important part of our history and our economy."

But Ms Aldworth and other animal rights activists are also hoping that international pressure will save the seals. In November, they were boosted when a US senator introduced a bipartisan resolution urging the Canadian government to end the hunt.

The resolution cited a 2001 study by a team of veterinarians, which found that the hunt failed to comply with animal welfare standards, and that regulations on humane killing were neither respected nor enforced.