Ensuring the seal harvest is humane

Canadian harvesting practices are among the best in the world. They are guided by rigorous animal welfare principles that are internationally recognized by independent observers.

Promoting animal welfare in Canada’s seal harvest

The Government of Canada has strict science-based regulations, which are reviewed regularly, to ensure a humane harvest. In 2009, a number of amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) came into force to further enhance the humaneness of the Canadian seal harvest. The amendments were developed based on recommendations from the Independent Veterinarians Working Group, with members from Canada, France, the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and in consultation with provincial and territorial governments, the sealing industry, and others. The MMR stipulate the proper technique and specific types of tools to use that ensure seals are harvested humanely.

The three-step process

Canada’s science-based, three-step process ensures that animals are harvested quickly and humanely. Developed and implemented based on the recommendations from the Independent Veterinarians Working Group, the three-step process is as humane – if not more so – than most other methods of dispatching wild or domesticated animals in the world.

All harvesters wishing to participate in the commercial seal harvest must have completed training on the three-step process for harvesting seals, as set out in the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) in order to renew their licence.

Although there is currently a freeze on professional sealing licences, licensing policy requires a commercial harvester to work under an experienced harvester for two years to obtain a professional licence. In addition to the two-year apprenticeship program for new harvesters, governments, industry and other stakeholders deliver comprehensive information workshops in advance of each season.

The three-step process also applies to harvesters with personal use licences. The three steps are:

  1. Striking — the seal harvesters must shoot or strike animals on the top of the cranium, with either a firearm or a hakapik or club.
  2. Checking — the seal harvesters must palpate both the left and right halves of the cranium, following striking (either with a firearm, hakapik or club), to ensure that the skull has been crushed. This ensures the seal is irreversibly unconscious or dead.
  3. Bleeding — the seal harvester must bleed the animal by severing the two axillary arteries located beneath the front flippers and must allow a minimum of one minute to pass before skinning the animal. Bleeding ensures the seal is dead.

Despite the suggestions by anti-sealing groups, seals are not skinned alive, as concluded by independent international veterinarians and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) experts. Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed because seals show muscle activity, referred to as a swimming reflex, even after death. This reflex gives the false impression that the animal is still alive, similar to the reflex seen in chickens when killed.

Tools used for harvesting seals

The Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) stipulate that only high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks may be used in the seal harvest. A hakapik is a tool designed to harvest the animal quickly and humanely. Changes in 2009 to the MMR prohibit the use of the hakapik as the instrument for the initial strike of seals over the age of one year.

Sealers in the Magdalen Islands, the Quebec North Shore and in Western Newfoundland, where about 30 percent of the harvest occurs, use both rifles and hakapiks (or clubs). Sealers on the ice floes on the “Front” (in the waters east of Newfoundland), where 70 percent of the harvest occurs, primarily use rifles.

Harvesting young seals

Young harp seals provide the most valuable pelts and market demand is generally stronger for this type of pelt. There is also increasing interest in meat from both harp and grey seals. Full use of the animal is encouraged for pelt, meat and oil.

The harvesting of harp seal pups, known as whitecoats, and hooded seal pups, known as bluebacks, is illegal in Canada and has been since 1987. The seals that are harvested are self-reliant, independent animals. Harp and grey seal cannot be legally hunted until they have moulted their first fur and are living independently. These seals are not usually harvested until they are 25 days or older. Hooded seals cannot be harvested until they are 2-3 years of age, which is when they lose their blueback pelage.

Enforcing a humane harvest

The Government of Canada monitors the seal harvest closely and it is committed to enforcing the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) to the fullest extent of the law. Changes to the MMR in 2009 further enhance the humaneness of the annual seal harvest and include the three-step process. The MMR also stipulate that only seals that have reached the age of self-sufficiency can be harvested.

Since changes to the MMR in 2009, the Department has made considerable efforts to verify the high level of professionalism and commitment to humaneness of the Canadian sealing industry. Based on approximately 3,000 fishery officer inspections over the last five years, the sealing industry maintained a 96 percent compliance rate with the MMR.