Canadians will bludgeon thousands of seals to death this month
In 2017, Canada was voted one of the most peaceful places in the world to live in the Global Peace Index. It was obvious why it came in at number eight, given the strongly liberal and proudly multicultural country's impressive track record when it comes to political stability and the low threat of terrorism and violent crime.
But, beneath the tranquillity, a battle rages on. Even the Great White North has its conflicts, and there is a particularly devastating one that refuses to resolve itself. For decades now, Canadians have been locked in vicious disagreement over seal hunting, dubbed the biggest marine animal hunt on earth.
Each year, the Canadian government signs off on the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of seals in the annual commercial seal hunt, which sees young seals clubbed to death for their fur. The animals in question are mainly killed for their pelts, although some hunters also sell their blubber which is used to make "seal oil" and sold as a health supplement, and their penises, which are an ingredient in aphrodisiacs in some Asian markets.
Heavily criticised for the seemingly inhumane killing methods, the hunt - which takes place every Spring - has animal welfare advocates up in arms every single year.
The Canadian government requires hunters - officially named sealers - to go through training in humane killing practices before they can be licensed. To ensure that seals die quickly, guidelines state that sealers must target a seal’s head using high-powered rifles, clubs, or a hakapik — a wooden staff with a hook at the end — afterwards confirming that the animal is dead and severing its arteries before skinning it.
However, thousands of activists, along with dozens of animal organisations, insist that the seals are subjected to barbaric inhumane killings, with many bludgeoned within an inch of their lives, then left to slowly and painfully bleed out on the ice. PETA, Greenpeace and International Fund For Animal Welfare, supported by numerous A-list celebrities, have all either launched campaigns or spoken out about commercial hunting, but perhaps Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada sums up advocates' position the best:
“For 18 years, I’ve observed the Atlantic Canadian seal slaughter at close range and witnessed a level of suffering most adult people can’t bear to watch on video," she said. "Almost all of the seals killed are pups just a few weeks old, and they are treated brutally. Baby seals are routinely shot and wounded and left crawling through their own blood on the ice, crying out in agony."
She continues: "Many conscious, wounded baby seals are impaled on metal hooks and dragged onto the bloody decks of the boats where they are clubbed to death. Wounded seal pups also escape into the water, where they die slowly and painfully.”
To add fuel to the fire, the Humane Society of the United States has claimed that when an independent, international team of veterinarians observed the hunt and examined the corpses of skinned seals, they found evidence that up to 40 per cent of the dead seals had skull injuries that were not sufficient to have caused death. Furthermore, opposers have claimed the seal meat is rarely used and often wastefully thrown back into the water, or left to rot.
Some might say that, when it comes to seal hunting, the pictures alone speak for themselves - but the numbers tell another part of the story. Canada's annual quota for how many seals are allowed to be killed has increased in recent years, with Canada's Fisheries Minister sanctioning the murder of up to 400,000 harp seals, 60,000 grey seals and 8,200 hooded seals - a total of more than 468,000 animals in 2015, and 400,000 in 2016.
The alleged brutal ways in which the seals meet their deaths is not the only thing that outrages activists though. It's the needlessness of it all.
Decades of bad publicity and campaigns to end the slaughter have taken a toll, with the selling of seal fur banned in roughly 37 countries. A ban on its import has been in force in the United States for more than 25 years, with the European Union prohibiting importation - with an exemption for Inuit products - in 2009, and India recently following suit in 2018. The embargos broach the question: who exactly is Canada hoping to sell their products to?
Despite a near-worldwide ban on the selling of seal fur leading to a dramatic collapse in the market, the North American country still places its quotas at record highs that, reportedly, even the sealers can't summon the effort to hit. In spite of ambitious targets, it is believed that approximately 71,000 harp seals were killed during the commercial hunt in 2012, 38,000 in 2011 and 94,000 in 2013, with Andy Ottaway of the Seal Protection Action Group claiming: "The government is keeping the quotas they have already set, but the actual hunters themselves cannot be bothered to go out because they cannot sell the pelts. The incentive is gone. If the EU ban had happened a decade ago perhaps the hunt would've grinded to a halt by now."
The situation is vastly different from hundreds of years ago, when business was booming. In the 15th century, demand meant that hundreds of thousands of harp seals were killed each year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, all so the North Americans and Europeans could dress in fashionable sealskin coats.
But, the fact of the matter is, we're not in the 15th century anymore. So does the seal hunt offer any benefits anymore? Supporters insist that the seals involved are not at risk of becoming endangered and their killings allow Canadians to reap the financial benefits; the industry remaining a significant economic contributor to communities with limited economic opportunities, generating around $35 million per year in knock-on economic value. In addition, the government, under heavy pressure from activists to ban the hunt altogether, stand firm, stating that the industry is in no way inhumane and is governed by rigorous animal welfare principles.
Yet, with reports claiming that hunters killed roughly 30,000 baby seals on the ice floes of eastern Canada in April 2018 over the course of nine days alone, activists refuse to be hushed, determined to save the 3,333 seals which allegedly die painfully and in vain each day - with many more lined up behind them to meet a similar doom. With the seal hunting business remaining a shell of its former self, many people out there firmly believe it is time for Canada to reassess its allegiances.