The Hunt Begins...

i-51b0b99ea8966ee9e63fca0924694676-Pagophilus_groenlandicus.jpgToday's the start of Canada's annual seal hunt and this year a new rule is in place to ensure seals are dead before they're skinned. Hunters must sever the arteries under a seal's flippers in an effort to make sure 'it's humane as it can be.' Seal pups 10-21 days old who haven't molted their downy white fur must be spared.

Animal activists call the hunt cruel with little supplemental income to sealers. The Fisheries Department says the practice is sustainable and well-managed, providing supplemental support for isolated fishing communities. The most recent survey in 2004 estimatese the population of harp seals has more than tripled since the 1970s.

Sound management or inhumanity? What do readers think?


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Hard to believe that Canada cannot come up with a creative alternative for the people in those areas to generate revenue. Really hard to believe.

Miss Sheril,
As always, you raise interesting topics, and this is one that I've followed for many years. Underlying the hunt, and people's reaction to it, is a fundamental battle about the world and humans place in it. Are we the subjugators, who can and should hunt, burn, tear down and dig out what ever we want from the Earth's bounty, or are we just one of many cogs in the large machine that is Earth's ecosystem?

In the case of the seal hunt, of course, things are made murky by the long standing practice of going after the all-white pups. While Canada has tightened it's rules, the images from the 1980's of white pups being bludgened in the head (and sometimes surviving for hours) haven't gone away. Thus, those who care about humans place in the ecosystem can argue that the hunters are being cruel, and so the fight goes on.

Yet it is not that simple. Hunting seals is both a tradition and a way to earn a living in northern remote parts of Canada. These are areas that don't ever really thaw out in the summer, and so agriculture or any other outdoor economic activity just isn't practicle. And First Nations peoples have hunted seals in the area for hundreds if not thousands of years, so it's not like this is a modern phenomina.

What's my solution? Simple - make the hunt as small and humane as possible, but allow it to continue. In a healthy, growing population of animals, killing a small percentage for human use - whatever the reason - won't impact the ecosystem, nor will it prevent the seals from doing what they are evolutionarily designed to do. We, on the outside, must make sure Canada is enforcing all its regulations, and that the hunt is studied continually in the context of that ecosystem so that it doesn't start to cause harm.

And lest any of the animal rights activists come after me for being . . . . uncaring, I'll just add this - humans kill animals for food all the time all around the globe. Just becuase they are called chickens, or cows, or Chilean Atlantic Salmon doesn't mean they aren't animals, nor does it mean humans aren't killing them and eating them. Your choice which is the greater disaster.


I lived in Western Alaska -- similar issues re hunting seals, whales, etc. I'm going on memory here, so let's hope it's accurate, but as I recall these hunts were regulated by allowing only Alaska Natives (First Peoples) to participate. Next, animals could only be used for traditional purposes, providing food as part of the subsistence lifestyle up there (similar problem up there re agriculture -- if you don't hunt or fish, you don't eat), and they had an interesting twist re fur, walrus ivory and baleen -- Alaska Natives could use these to make traditional clothing and craft items and sell those, but they could not just sell pelts or uncarved ivory or baleen.

So these regulations were meant to limit the hunts, and also to support the traditional living off the land lifestyle, and traditional clothing and craft industries.

Digression: I worked at a hospital up there which had what they called a Native Foods program -- a lot of village elders in the hospital wouldn't eat western-style cafeteria/hospital food, so hunters donated seal meat, caribou, whale etc to the hospital for Native patients. It was a great success.

As one who is active with many conservation and environmental groups, such as NRDC, WWF, and Ocean Conservancy, and also looking at your adorable picture of the seal pup, I want to say NO killing!
But, I do take both Philip and Anna's points. So long as it is controlled and not absued, my head wins out over my heart this time.

"Sound management or inhumanity?"

These two things are surely not mutually exclusive. The question of whether the cull is sound management practice seems to me to be separate to the question of whether it's inhumane or distasteful. Personally, I can't help but find it distasteful but objectively, I support Philip's stance.

I think it would be hypocritical of meat-eaters (yes, I am one!) to oppose sustainable seal hunting. After all, the meat is free-range, and if the killing is done humanely, it's probably one of the more ethical sources of meat.

One possible caveat is that if seals are very intelligent, I might oppose it on moral grounds--which is the reason I oppose the hunting of whales, primates, elephants, and (if it ever came up) of parrots and corvids as well. I suspect seals aren't that bright though.

Hard to believe that Canada cannot come up with a creative alternative for the people in those areas to generate revenue. Really hard to believe.

Well, believe. You're talking people, some of whom live in isolated communities, some of said communities which don't even have road access, who work in the fishing industry which means they can't work over the winter, and who do it to supplement what income they do have.

I agree here with Philip and Anna. Conservationists should have the interests of native communities in mind too. We're all animals after all! What Anna describes sounds like the right solution to me, if it working.

To quote "Farmer Vincent" from the movie "Motel Hell", "Meat's meat, and a man's gotta eat." Unless you are a vegetarian, you are being pretty hypocritical to condemn the hunt. If you are a vegetarian then you still have to concede the fact that the cuddly poster child for the "environmental movement", the polar bear, dispatches the little critters in a somewhat less "humane" fashion.

Sound management or inhumanity?

These would seem to be the two frames for the seal hunting controversy. For the sound management frame, we have Tom Rideout, fisheries and aquaculture minister for the eastern Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador where 90% of seal hunters reside. His claims: animal rights activates defame seal hunting by showing images of whitecoat harp seals (apparently the type shown in the picture above) being killed, which was made illegal two decades ago; when seals are killed, they are done in ways no different than slaughterhouse animals; omega-3 oils and other important products are obtained from seals; the seal fishery industry provides a major source of income for persons living in rural eastern provinces that have a high unemployment rate; human hunting of seals maintain an ecological balance between seal and other wildlife; and the seal population is not in jeopardy since there are approximately 6 million.

On the inhumane side, we have the U.S. Humane Society and Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian Wildlife Issues for the U.S. Humane Society.

Basically, the inhumane side have comments that are the exact opposite of Tom Rideout.

I generally tend to move towards the middle ground if I can't tell whose being honest; meaning that there should be a middle ground somewhere that's closer to truth and subsequent solution.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

Not that i trust all my politicians, but what Tom Rideout (and many others) claim is pretty correct. There will always be a few incompetent or cruel hunters/animal harvesters in any situation, and that includes deer hunting, cattle slaughter, etc. Every now and then, an anti-sealer gets video of one of these anomalies, and another round of howling at the hunters begins.

The seals are in no way endangered, by the way. The herds have continued to grow and are often very large indeed. The biggest threat to their future is GCC, since they give birth normally on the ice. A couple years ago, some groups actually pupped onshore, a big behaviour change.

When I was a child (in Atlantic Canada) in the late fifties and early sixties, furred sealskin boots were staple, cheap, warm and waterproof, for poor kids like me. The animals are not wasted; the meat is used as well as the hide.

There's no question of the economic value to the locals; and many can count their generations from great-great grandfathers who also were sealers.

And I cannot express how sickened I am by the celebrity attraction to photo-ops with baby seals. I'm always hoping some good sized seal with three inch canines (you should see the teeth on these big carnivores!) will take a bite out of one of them.

I really like how you bring up things that are hard for many people to accept. We over-harvested seals and in some inhumane ways for a long time.
We have a long history as a species of doing that. Consider Steller's Sea Cow, Dodo Birds, Moas, Elephant Birds, Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, etc. Humans have acted irresponsibly.
In other ways we have to acknowledge that managing wildlife requires culling excess population numbers.
We modify habitats by our activities and it has an effect. Before Europeans arrived where I live White-Tailed Deer had a population density of about 4 per square mile. Now they have a density of between 50 to 100 per square mile.
Rare plants and ground nesting birds are taking a beating from the effect of the over-population of deer.
I will never have any respect for anyone who kills and enjoys it. We need to have some reverence while taking an animal's life. Animal rights people don't acknowledge the value of culling excess animal populations. I insist that sometimes it is not the worst choice.
Remember to turn off your lights tomorrow night.

By Cal Harth (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

If a population is abundant, there are other reasons for not killing aside from a consideration of whether it is morally right. While not all of these considerations (in below quote) may apply to seals, many have been found relevant to another predator, wolves. Perhaps further research may indicate an annual seal hunt to be detrimental to seals in similar ways that culling wolf populations has been to wolves. Gordon Haber describes the complicated situation with wolves in a post on his blog:

The biology of organisms, societies, and systems is described by behavior, patterns, processes, and much more, at multiple scales and across scales, not just by the number of individuals present or how fast they bounce back from losses. In fact, the number of individuals present at any given time, i.e., abundance, is more of a manifestation of the biology - of the behavior, patterns, processes, etc. - and, for wolves, not a very sensitive manifestation.

Numbers are not the only criteria. And if this applies to one species, it applies to others as well. While wolf numbers remain relatively healthy, the cost of culling is seen in a loss of knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Could analagous, though undeniably different, disruptions be taking place in seal populations?

This is an excellent example of a species that is recovering from human persecution. My state had the only remaining wolves in the lower 48 states for a long time. They have bounced back from about 800 to nearly 3000.
I was always thrilled to see their tracks or to see them. Sometimes they do harm. A radio-collared wolf from the Wisconsin wolf recovery project spent time killing calves and cows in my dad's beef herd. Nine calves and three cows were killed by the wolf. The government agencies did not respond until a mortality signal indicated that the wolf was dead. My dad got fined but he would not rat on the guy who finally shot the wolf.
In our state about 2% of the wolves switch from their natural prey to livestock. I love wolves as much as anyone, but the bad ones need to be culled.

By Cal Harth (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

Given, wild animals that come into direct conflict with humans are a different subject. The kind of culling that is happening in the area where Gordon Haber researches is justified as proper game management- these wolves do not come into any significant contact with humans. My previous comment had the link to his blog entry cut. This is it:…

Essentially, I was simply elaborating on the point made by Ed Yong in the fifth comment.

3 Words: SICK AND WRONG. Definately inhumane. This issue just makes me sick. I like the quote, "this Earth does not belong to us-but we belong to the Earth." Has the Canadian government not heard of the Circle of life? Why is this brutal seal slaughter necessary..simple-it is NOT!!!! Why is it that in the 1980's we banned the killing of baby seals, yet it is ok to kill ones over 21 days old? This is a disgrace to mankind. I support the organizations working to stop this brutal seal hunt and pray that they will soon reign in victory. Thank you for posting this and helping raise awareness!

By Juliette D. (not verified) on 30 Mar 2008 #permalink

Just to add a note here that sealing can be hazardous to the sealers as well as the seals. Yesterday, 4 sealers were killed when their ship, which was under tow by a Coast Guard ice breaker, struck floating ice and was capsized. It's not just a lark to make a few extra bucks for these men, its a serious part of their livelihood.

Interesting discussion. In my opinion, it is not up to the Federal government to decide whether or not seal hunting is humane. It is up to the seal hunters. The Federal government does (and probably should) have a role in resource management and "public relations".

A key idea in current Canadian political thought is that communities have the right to determine their own cultural identity. I've heard this called the tossed salad model, the idea being that it is different from the American melting pot. The language laws in Quebec and the creation of Nunavut are two prominent examples.

As I understand it, sealers come from fishing communities. As long as there is no danger of extinction, they have a right to keep fishing and sealing. They shouldn't be forced to spend the winter on the couch or in the oil patch.

About the cute picture of baby seal: please note that the killing of baby seals is banned since about 20 years. How many animals are killed each day for their meat, but do not have the luck of being as photogenic as this one?