Canada’s annual seal hunt draws sealers and sceptics
The late afternoon sun glinted off the ice floes drifting along the rugged Newfoundland coast, a postcard scene of pristine natural beauty and solitude.
Blue-hulled fishing boats dotted the horizon, churning a path through the chill waters of the North Atlantic. But as the helicopter skimmed above the ocean towards them, the tranquillity faded fast.
The Canadian seal hunt : ‘cruel, criminal, and out of control’
From the prow of a vessel ahead, a crewman took aim with a rifle and fired a single shot. About 50 yards away, a dark-skinned three-week-old harp seal reared its head, then flopped back down, spasming as its blood stained the ice where it lay.
A minute later, a small skiff landed a crew member on the floe, who darted nimbly across the slippery surface, raised his hakapik – a wooden stave with a hammer head and hook – and crushed its skull with two swinging blows.
It was day one of the Canadian annual seal hunt off northern Newfoundland, and in the space of half an hour, The Sunday Telegraph saw two dozen young seals dispatched in the same manner, leaving crimson traces on the ice.
The hunt is always deeply controversial and highly emotive. Critics argue that baby seals, alone on the ice after being nursed by their mothers for their first 12 days, are being shot and bludgeoned to meet humankind’s vain demands for fur.
The sealers, the fur trade and the Canadian authorities insist the killings meet humane standards, that the hunt is part of local tradition, and that the animals, which are not listed as endangered, would have otherwise to be culled.
But this year the annual hunting season is opening amid a fierce international row, as the European Union prepares to introduce a ban on all products from commercial sealing, largely in response to lobbying by animal rights groups.
“We really hope this marks the beginning of the end for the seal hunt,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian branch of Humane Society International (HSI), an animal rights group at the forefront of the campaign to ban the practice.
Last week the Sunday Telegraph accompanied the group as it sent helicopters equipped with high-powered video cameras out to monitor the killings, witnessing a slaughter process that nobody – not even the hunters – argue is pleasant to watch.
After clubbing the dead seal, the hunter dragged with the hook of his hakapik across the ice, leaving a deep red trail staining the white and blue, and hurled it into the bloodstained skiff. There, another crew member skillfully and quickly skinned the seals’ pelts for the fur trade, sliced off the fins – a traditional Newfoundland delicacy – and hurled the carcass back overboard, completing the process in barely a minute.
The Canadian government has reacted furiously to the imminent European Union ban, taking its objections to the World Trade Organisation while putting seal meat on the menu at parliament in Ottawa in a display of symbolic culinary defiance of Europe. Native Inuit groups are pursuing a separate legal challenge to the ban, which is due to come into effect in August, at the European Court of Justice.
A hunting free-for-all reduced the population of harp seals to an estimated two million in the 1970s, prompting the introduction of quotas, and the numbers are now estimated to have recovered to between six and nine million. This year Canada has increased the killing quota by 50,000 to 330,000, in a clear message to the rest of the world that it believes such losses are sustainable for the herd.
In practice, however, far fewer will be killed, because of sheer lack of demand. Only one Newfoundland processor has placed an order for pelts – believed to be for a total of 40,000 to 50,000 – and the price is down from in excess of C$100 (£64) each four years ago to barely more than C$20 (£13) now.
The EU ban is partly behind the drop in demand, but so too is the global economic downturn, with Russia and China cutting back on orders for expensive seal fur items. Many fishermen, who also earn livings by catching crab, lobster and shrimp, are skipping the hunt altogether this year.
Eldred Woodford, the president of the Canadian Sealers Association, was among those who did put to sea last week with five crew members on board his 50 ft vessel, Harvest Mist. He was predictably contemptuous of the EU ban.
“The EU stance is completely hypocritical,” he said, speaking in the thick Newfoundland sailors’ brogue that carries heavy echoes of the West Country and Irish roots of the region’s fishing communities.
“They kill millions of animals in the EU for different reasons and we’re being singled out for harvesting a natural resource that is not endangered. A dead animal is a dead animal. As long as they are killed humanely, it should not be an issue.”
Mr Woodford, 40, who estimates that he has 25,000 seal kills to his name since he first joined a hunt at 15, was speaking in the picturesque fishing village of Herring Neck, where clapboard homes are dotted around a cove, as he made final preparations for the trip.
Rejecting the cases documented by anti-hunt campaigners, he insisted that sealers followed Canadian regulations and veterinary advice on humane killers. “But we have a problem because we are killing in the open and visually that does not look good,” he said.
“There is nothing pretty about killing an animal. They bleed. If they are killed in abattoirs or in woods, you don’t see it. But seals die on the ice.”
A few miles further along a coastline of jagged headlands, thick spruce forests and natural harbours, where Vikings established the first European settlements five centuries before Columbus discovered “the New World”, is Twillingate, the hub of Newfoundland’s sealing industry.
Jack Troake, 73, has ancestors dating back more than 170 years buried in a graveyard that he can see from his boat repair shed. He has been sealing since he was 14, but last year missed his first hunt in more than four decades because the low price for pelts meant it was not worth the time and money. To his chagrin, he is also sitting out this year’s event.
“It’s very frustrating but the market’s not there right now,” he said.
“You don’t do it because you enjoy killing – it’s a rough and tough way to make a living. But it helps put food on my table and stop the roof from leaking and I won’t let anybody call me a savage for that.
“I don’t care what people think. It’s who I am, it’s what I do. This is our culture and people shouldn’t mess with it.
“You can’t make a seal hunt look nice. It looks gross, even to me. But let’s get real about this. You can’t just let these animals run wild.
If they do, it will devastate our fishing stocks and we’ll need a cull to control their numbers anyway.”
The biggest buyers of Canadian seal fur are Russia, followed by China – a market that the Canadian government is assiduously trying to develop as other options close. The pelts remain the prime motivation for the hunt, although the industry has also using seal blubber and oil for Omega 3 supplements as well as seeking to develop a culinary market outside fishing communities for the meat and even researching possible medical uses of the animal’s organs and heart valves.
Ms Aldworth of HSI knows all about the pro-sealing arguments and sentiments – she grew up in a Newfoundland fishing town eating the mammal’s meat and former schoolmates were participating in the hunt last week.
And for the last 12 years, she has returned to monitor and document the hunt. “It’s very hard to watch this slaughter year after year, but we believe the EU ban on seal products is an incredibly important breakthrough and a very brave decision,” she said.
“The fashion houses of Paris and Milan set the trend for everywhere else so this is a very serious blow for the Canadian seal industry,” she said. “Europe is also the world’s biggest market for Omega 3 and hence a significant market for seal oil.”
At the heart of the Ms Aldworth’s lobbying to the European parliament – an act that many fellow Newfoundlanders regard as bordering on treachery -is that the hunt is inhumane and no cull is needed.
“It’s not that sealers are cruel people who enjoy abusing animals,” she said. “But the uncontrolled environment in which the seal hunt operates makes it inherently inhumane as it prevents them applying humane slaughter methods.
“It occurs up to 170 miles offshore, amid ocean swells and often extreme weather conditions of wind and rain. Shooting accurately from distances of 50 to 60 metres from a moving boat at an animal that is often moving on ice floes that are moving is very difficult.
“The result is that most seals are not killed by the first bullet and have to be bludgeoned with the hakapik.”
Mr Woodford bluntly rejects those allegations, pointing to the leaflet posted next to the captain’s bridge on how a seal should be killed. He insisted that most are killed by gunshot while the subsequent blows from the hakapik to the skull guarantee they are unconscious.
Sealers are also supposed to check the animals’ vital signs for proof they are indeed dead before they haul them away. But in the rush to get on and an off the ice last week, no such checks appeared to be made in some kills seen by The Sunday Telegraph. Ms Aldworth cited evidence of several other such breaches in regulations this year alone.
Population numbers are another source of dispute. Animal rights groups argue that the numbers will be self-correcting in the wild, but the sealing lobby say a cull would be needed if there was no hunt.
Dave Barry, who runs the Seals and Sealing Network trade group, said a major impact of the EU ban is to “perpetuate myths and misperceptions” about the animal’s numbers. “Seals are not endangered and they were never listed as threatened,” he said. “Their numbers are flourishing and yet all the time I hear from people who believe they are endangered. It’s very frustrating.”
The two sides also produce a welter of differing facts and reports about the economic impact of the industry and the hunt. What is not in dispute is that the sort of coastal Newfoundland communities so memorably evoked by novelist E Annie Proulx in her best-selling book The Shipping News are already in decline.
In Herring Neck and Twillingate, the population is falling and ageing as younger men pursue more guaranteed sources of income in industries such as Canada’s booming oil business. Even Mr Woodford, who declares proudly that sealing is “in the blood”, has reluctantly advised his only son to pursue a different career. “It was painful advice, but I’m really not sure what future he has here,” he said.