The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.3 million animals, over three times what it was in the 1970s. The grey herd seal population is currently estimated to be about 350,000 animals.
DFO sets quotas at levels that ensure the health and abundance of seal herds, and considers many factors, such as ice conditions, incidental harvest or bycatch, the Greenland and Arctic hunts and commercial harvest levels as well as potential quota over-runs when making its decision. The population is at the highest level seen in over 30 years and is in no way an “endangered species.”
The current harp seal harvest is conducted as an economically sustainable activity. It can make an important contribution to the annual income of people living in rural coastal communities where other economic opportunities are limited, which may reduce outmigration to large urban centres. The loss of economic opportunities would have an important impact on people in these small communities.
The seal harvest provides direct employment for over six thousand people per year on a part-time basis. Some sealers have stated that their income from sealing can represent a significant amount of their total annual income.
There are also many secondary economic benefits derived from the seal industry. Seals have been harvested for food, fuel, clothing and other products for hundreds of years. Seal products consist of leather, oil, handicrafts, and meat for human and animal consumption as well as seal oil capsules rich in Omega-3. New product development such as for specialized seal food products and research into the use of harp seal heart valves in human heart surgery is ongoing.
Fishery officers conduct surveillance of sealers and sealing activities using aerial surveillance; vessel monitoring systems (satellite tracking); at-sea patrols and inspections; dockside/landing site patrols and inspections; and inspections at buyer/processor sites/facilities. The use of different tools and surveillance methods is necessary for a well-balanced enforcement program. The Canadian Coast Guard provides ship and helicopter support, and monitoring and enforcement are augmented as needed by the RCMP and the Quebec provincial police.
Infractions are taken seriously and sealers who fail to comply with Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations are penalized. The consequences of illegal actions could include court-imposed fines, licence prohibitions and the forfeiting of catches, fishing gear, vessels and vehicles.
The harvesting of harp seal pups (whitecoats) and hooded seal pups (bluebacks) is illegal in Canada and has been since 1987. The seals that are harvested are self-reliant, independent animals.
There is ongoing debate about the possible negative impacts of grey seal predation on fish populations, particularly Atlantic cod. Over the last 30 years, the grey seal population off the coast of Atlantic Canada has grown rapidly - from 30,000 in the 1970s to about 350,000 today.
Scientific research suggests that grey seal predation could account for much of the high natural mortality of cod in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence. At current rates of natural mortality, stock growth is not likely unless productivity increases well above levels observed in the past decade.
A Zonal Advisory Process (ZAP) on the impacts of grey seals on
fish populations in eastern Canada concluded October 8, 2010. Science
advice from the ZAP will inform DFO on the extent to which management
decisions regarding grey seal population control are likely to achieve
measurable increases in cod productivity and biomass.
Seals are not skinned alive. Independent international veterinarians and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) experts concluded that the suggestions by anti-sealing groups that many seals are skinned alive are not true.
Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed; however 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 in chickens.
Changes to the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) in 2009 further enhance the humaneness of the annual seal harvest. These changes include the three-step process (stunning, checking, and bleeding the seals); and require sealers to first verify death, then bleed the animal for a minimum of one minute prior to skinning.
Veterinarians have found that the hakapik, when properly used, is at least as humane as, and often more humane than, the killing methods used in commercial slaughterhouses, which are accepted by the majority of the public.
Seals may only be harvested using efficient tools designed to kill the animal quickly such as high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs and hakapiks. All these methods are considered by experts to be humane.
Canadian harvesting practices are among the best in the world. They are guided by rigorous animal welfare principles that are internationally recognized by virtually all independent observers. The Government of Canada monitors the seal harvest closely and it is committed to enforcing the regulations to the fullest extent of the law. According to Fisheries and Oceans observers, 98.5% of seals harvested in 2009 were harvested in compliance with the Marine Mammal Regulations, an indication of the high level of professionalism and the commitment to humaneness of Canadian sealers.