One of the most controversial social and political issues facing Canada that has been gaining worldwide media attention is the annual Atlantic Canada Seal Hunt. Held mainly in Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from mid-November to mid-May, seals are clubbed to death by hunters for their fur. Retailers use these pelts in a wide variety of fashion-related products including coats, handbags, hats, vests and gloves from some of our favourite design houses including Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. According to CBC News Canada, on average 275,000 seals are slaughtered annually in Canada equating to nearly 25% of the global industry – making it the largest hunt worldwide.
Whether or not you agree with this century’s old practice, it is impossible to ignore the national spotlight it has placed on Canada and the global uproar it has generated within ethical groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who claim the seal hunt is “inhumane and an embarrassment to Canada.” The images of the hunt are powerful, and seal hunt opponents know it. Organizations like PETA use the brutal and bloody slaughter photos in advertising campaigns to raise awareness of the hunt and to gain public trust by opposing seal hunters, the Canadian government and the representative trade organizations within the field. Many celebrities including Beatles pop legend Paul McCartney and Canadian-born bombshell Pamela Anderson have long been advocates against the seal hunt.
This past February, spokesperson for PETA, Anderson, staged a press event coinciding with the Olympics where she personally mailed a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in front of the Department of Fisheries Canada pleading to cancel the main hunt taking place in April. Recently, PETA also launched the ‘Save the Seals’ campaign, using celebrities - such as Anderson herself, rock royalty Kelly Osborne, blogger Perez Hilton, and Canadian model turned actress Tricia Helfer – in advertisements to raise awareness against the hunt. Clearly, these types of continuous public campaigns seem to be working as conservation groups and animal activist groups received news they have been anxiously hoping for for quite some time. Last May, the European Parliament approved the European Seal Bill banning all imports of seal product into Europe.
Until recently, the seal trade industry has been growing economically, exporting more than $13 million worth of seal products annually according to Industry Canada. The European Union typically accounts for about 15% of Canada's seal exports. Needles to say, the Canadian seal trade industry continues to suffer the devastating blow from the passing of this bill. Proponents for the seal hunt, the Government of Canada and Department of Fisheries Canada have argued that the seal hunt does indeed benefit the nation by providing a significant source of income for thousands of sealers. However, the price for seal pelts has been decreasing drastically, even before the bill approval in Europe. According to DFO Canada, the price per seal pelt has consistently dropped by 100% each year; from $105 in 2006 to $15 in 2009. This continuous drop alone may be an indication that the seal trade industry may in fact be a dying one.
According to the seal hunt opponents’ views, the problem lies not only at the killing itself, but within the inhumane method of how the animals are hunted, poor regulations and the lack of monitored government supervision. The act of seal clubbing can be traced back as far as Inuit times, where the first nation’s people used hakapiks, a wooden hammer-like tool with a metal spike, to quickly and efficiently kill seals with little damage to the pelt. This tool is still used today.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare claims that seals are routinely clubbed or shot and left to suffer on the ice until they're clubbed later and that they are often skinned before being rendered fully unconscious. However, DFO Canada adamantly denies these accusations as studies completed by the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that of the majority of seals taken during the hunt in 2002, 98% of examined seals were killed in an acceptably humane manner. Accusations of animal cruelty have continued to flame the fire of this debate for many years and likely will continue for more years to come.
The question we are left with is: what does each of us define as ‘humane’? Is killing for materialistic purposes humane? Or is it acceptable if the animal is killed quickly experiencing no pain? The seal hunt is a cherished tradition of Canadian history that may possibly be an economic disaster waiting in the wind. Concluding the seal hunt may possibly be in our cards or we may continue to relive our past... but only time will tell.