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- Chet Merklin
- Jeff Smith
Canadian Seal Clubbing
Seals have it rough. They hunt for food, they eat, they nurture their young, they procreate, they sleep, and they survive. Their fate, however, isn’t really in their flippers at all. The true power rests with a species far more indecisive and far less furry than the seals over which it fights amongst itself. Fifty years ago, controversy between animal rights activist groups and Canadian sealers broke and has yet to cease over the hunting of seals in the Canadian northeast. It was thought to have been won though, for a while. Two decades after the protests began, the banishment of baby whitecoats (adolescent seal pups, swathed in white fur) was brought about by the European Economic Community in 1983, crippling the trade and putting on the mask of victory for the environmentalists who had fought for it so bitterly. That was it, the fight was over. This would be proven wrong twenty years later when the trade of older pup furs surpassed any other time thirty-five years previous. The Canadian seal hunt was back in full swing—and so were the environmentalists, battling for the rights of an animal seen as an object for exploitation by a species that doesn’t fully understand what the stakes of the argument it has with itself to this day are (Warne).
Seal pups are brought up on the ice because it is critical for giving birth, nursing pups, and molting (Warne). This allows for other, less water-happy predators a window to attack these seals when they are most vulnerable. Because of this, when humans first landed in northeastern what-is-now Canada, they saw the seal as an unlimited resource for both fur and fat. Though the furs of seals didn’t come into style until the late 1940s, seals were hunted long before then. By 1972, the demand for seal fur was increasing inversely to the decreasing seal population, and the seals were dipping steadily in numbers. “In 1976, as debate over the hunt was heating up, seal scientist David Lavigne warned in this magazine that ‘the survival of the harp seal hangs in the balance’” (Warne). The ban was placed, the seal populations rose again, and the seal hunting ceased. When the seal hunt began to proliferate again nearing the turn of the century, so did the numbers of supporters of the seal looking at how the hunt was actually conducted.
“Today’s modern seal ‘hunt’ isn’t really much of a hunt at all… In fact, depending on the condition of the ice flows, the sealers can have varying degrees of difficulty in getting to the seals. Methods include: walking from their trucks, driving up to them with their snowmobiles, taking commercial icebreaking or smaller boats to close or distant ice flows, then getting out of the boats and walking to them, or shooting seals from the boats” (harpseals.org).
Once seals are located, hunters typically approach the seals and kill them with a weapon called a ‘hakapik,’ a long stick-like tool with a hooked blade attached at the end. As described by opponents of the hunt on harpseals.org, the hunters then check to see if the animal has died before skinning it.
“The DFO now instructs sealers to palpate the seal’s skull with an object (such as a rifle or hakapik) to assess whether it has been fatally crushed before proceeding to bleed and then skin the seal. So this means that, after clubbing the seal pup, the sealer with prod the seal on the head with a pole or hook or rifle barrel. This crude method of ‘palpation’ is intended to enable the sealer to determine whether the seal is alive or conscious. And if the seal is still conscious, well, one can image how that would feel” (harpseals.org).
In essence, though the seal is no longer under serious threat by the hunt, the brutality of the process is still viciously criticized by environmentalists on the side of the seals.
On the proponent side of the argument stand fisherman and the sealers themselves. Fishermen are in direct competition with the seals when it comes to a wide variety of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. One main concern is the north-Atlantic cod harvest, greatly impacted since the return of seal populations. According to Canadian federal fisheries minister John Crosbie, “The predator-prey relationships between seals and capelin and between seals and cod are not fully understood,” Crosbie said. “However, the evidence that we have to date indicates that the unchecked growth of seal herds, particularly of harp seals, is harming the (northern) cod stock” (Gorham). This was stated in an article from 1992, and the issue still rests today. Ever since 1982, seal populations have gone unchecked and have ravaged populations many fishermen rely on for sustenance and a sole source of income. In addition to this, seal hunters respect restrictions and quotas as to the limits on how many seals they can bring home. The biggest concern when the ban on baby seals was implemented was that the seals might grow too rapidly in numbers. “We believe that the Atlantic harp seal herd is now not only stable, but probably growing. The simple fact is that there is no possible chance that the animal is in any danger of extinction, and it’s ridiculous for anyone to suggest that it is in danger. My personal concern, at this time is that the herd might grow too much” (thesealfishery.com). Stated by Tom Hughes, Executive Vice-President of the Ontario Federation of Humane Societies in 1978, this quote applied to harp seals, numbering just under 2 million. Today, that number rests around 6 million.
Personally, from the data I’ve been mulling over, the northeastern Canadian harp seal hunt is well regulated and scrutinized. In my opinion, the seal trade should continue, as it is an excellent governor of a system lacking in major predation already. I have no qualms with the continuation of the hunt, and believe that it should continue under current conditions, perhaps even increasing quotas with the increasing number of seals available. If anything, quotas should fluctuate evenly with population fluctuations of the harp seals themselves. From my perspective, the only discrepancy I can imagine with the hunt is the morality of the methods used to take the seals. According to three of the four sources I cited below, the tool used by hunters kills the seals almost immediately and is also handy for transporting seal carcasses and aiding in grip in case a hunter falls through the ice. So long as hunters correctly judge that the seal is truly dead before skinning it, I believe that the continuation of the seal hunt is justified and worth preservation.
“An Introduction to the Canadian Seal Hunt.” About the Seal Hunt. Harpseals.org, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
“Canadian Harp Seal Hunt – A Pro Perspective.” The Seal Fishery.com. Thesealfishery.com, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
Gorham, Rob. “Seal Controversy.” Chronicle-Herald (Halifax, Canada). 18 Apr. 1992: C1+. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
Warne, Kennedy. “Harp Seals: The Hunt for Balance.” National Geographic. March 2004: 50-67. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
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