Commercial seal hunting has existed for centuries, reaching a peak in the late 19th century. In 1899 33 million seals were slaughtered in Canada, primarily newborn pups ('whitecoats' - young harp seals, and 'bluebacks' - young hooded seals). This resulted in a massive decline in the seal population.
It was not until 1964 that the anti-sealing movement started, focusing on the cruelty issues and receiving widespread media coverage. Due to public pressure, in 1983 the European community, which had been importing nearly 75% of Canadian seal pelts, banned products from whitecoats and bluebacks and the market collapsed. In the USA the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the import, export, sale or possession of any marine mammal product (with a few exemptions for small native hunts).
In 1987 the Canadian federal government banned the commercial hunt for whitecoats. As a result of this and the collapse in the pelt market, kills did not meet the government quotas, which remained just below 200,000 seals. However the introduction of a seal meat subsidy in 1995 caused the official number of seals killed to rise sharply again in 1996 to nearly 250,000. In reality total kills are much higher than government figures suggest. This is because government "landed catch" statistics do not take account of approximately 80,000 seals of the same population killed in the Greenland hunt, seals wounded that "escape" and will subsequently die or seals incidentally caught in fishing nets.
In 1995 Norway killed 2600 seals just over two weeks old under the pretext of scientific research. This acted as the reopening of the Norwegian seal hunt which had been crippled by the European Community ban on whitecoat and blueback seal products. In 1996 27,000 seals were killed by Norway, of which 17,000 were young seals.
Commercial seal hunting also takes place in Greenland, Russia and Namibia, with varying numbers of seals being killed.
There is next to no market now for any seal part, the flesh is reported to be unpalatable (much of it is used to feed other animals on fur factory farms) and there is a glut of seal pelts. According to the Canadian Sealers Association, this glut is because the number of seals killed in the past few years has grown at an incredible rate, outpacing market demand. Some revenue comes from seal oil and seal penises as aphrodisiacs in some parts of Asia. Both these aspects have been highlighted in campaigns, by trying to stop the sale of seal oil and campaigns in Asia against the use of seal penises. Typically seals killed for penises have their genitals cut off leaving the body to rot. The biggest threat now is the apparent burgeoning market for seal meat in Asia and the only barrier to the market opening up to this, is the extreme difficulty in obtaining the necessary paperwork to allow export.
Animal protection campaigners gather footage of the Canadian hunt each year, which consistently shows that methods of killing are cruel; there are many violations of what regulations do exist and numerous other abuses not addressed by Canadian law. Video evidence shows that some seals were skinned alive and many others were either wounded by gunfire, left writhing in agony for several minutes after being clubbed, caught on sharpened steel hooks or clubbed to death with illegal weapons. Government internal reports show that approximately 8 out of 10 seals are just days or weeks old; they can only be killed legally at an age of 12 days.
Seal and Fish Facts
Harp seals are the most abundant species of seal in the Northwest Atlantic and are the main focus of the commercial hunt. Additionally, a small number of hooded seals are commercially hunted and also harbour, ringed, grey and bearded seals are killed in non-commercial hunts.
Seals do not "eat all the fish" and are categorically not responsible for the collapse of cod populations or impeding the recovery of these fish. There is overwhelming evidence that cod stocks collapsed as a direct result of over-fishing which was compounded by heavy gear technology of modern fishing vessels and a large increase in offshore gill nets. There was also an increased level of discarding and non-reporting of small fish. Both these factors together with mismanagement by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, lead to the commercial trawlers returning empty in 1992. A 2-year moratorium on commercial fishing was imposed but this has never been lifted as the fish have shown no signs of recovery.
Harp seal diets consist of around 3% Atlantic cod and it is further thought that killing seals may delay the recovery of the cod because seals eat other fish species that prey on cod. In reality the marine ecosystem is extremely complex and not fully understood. Simply blaming another species for overexploitation by humans will not remedy the situation and killing seals as a scapegoat will result in a further ecological disaster.
The Seal Hunt Today
In 2000 the Canadian government set a quota of over 275,000 seals. The ending of the seal meat subsidy, rising fuel costs, and declining pelt prices resulted in fewer seals being killed (according to the government 92,000 harp seals - one-third of the quota - were killed).
The quota for 2001 remains the same despite government research showing that the seal population will decline if more than 257,000 seals are killed.
Figures for 2000 showed that 20,549 seals were killed.
8,581 harp seals were classed as being 'young', non-suckling pups less than one year old (harp seal pups suckle for an average of 12 days). 1,346 of the hooded seals were young (pups suckle for an average of 4 days).
The quota for the 2000 hunt allowed a total of 20,000 adult harp seals and 10,300 adult hooded seals. The quota can be taken as adults or non-suckling young where 1 to 2.5 young equal one adult harp seal (depending on whether they are killed on the West or East Ice) and 1.5 non-suckling hooded seals are equal to one adult.