Myths and realities of the seal harvest

Myth: The harvest is unsustainable and is endangering the harp seal population.

Reality:

The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.4 million animals, almost six times what it was in the 1970s.

The commercial seal harvest is managed on the basis of sound conservation principles to ensure the resource is conserved for generations to come. Management decisions are based on long-term conservation and sustainability principles and take into consideration the department’s management plan, the latest science advice (including changes in reproductive rates, the effects of climate change, ice conditions, etc.) and consultation with industry.

Myth: The seal harvest provides such low economic return for sealers that it is not an economically viable industry.

Reality:

In Canada’s remote coastal and northern communities, sealing is an important part of the way of life and a much needed source of income for thousands of families. Beyond fur, seals are also used to produce meat products and oil products rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The revenues generated from this activity are an integral and vital component of the annual income earned by sealers. This fishery contributes to the diversity of income sources available in fishing communities. In some years, good seal prices or harvests offset lower prices or poor catches in other fisheries. 

Myth: There is no market for seal products.

Reality:

Seals have been harvested for food, fuel, clothing and other products for hundreds of years. Over time, the use and market for seal products has evolved considerably and Canada has been the largest global exporter of seal products for decades.

Uncertainty in global markets and market access restrictions, such as the European Union (EU) and other jurisdictional seal product bans have had an impact on exports in recent years. Despite these restrictions, export statistics demonstrate that there is global demand for seal products. Between 2005 and 2011, Canada exported over $70 million worth of seal products to more than 35 countries, including seal pelts, value-added garments, and edible seal products (oil and meat). Between 2005 and 2014, Canada exported over $66.5 million worth of seal products to more than 48 countries. Canada challenged the EU ban through the WTO dispute settlement process.

Expanding and maintaining access to markets is of paramount importance for exporting countries such as Canada. As a member of the World Trade Organization, Canada supports a rules-based global trading system and believes that consumers should have the opportunity to make their own informed purchasing decisions. The imposition of bans or restrictions on seal products creates a dangerous precedent for other products which are traded globally.

The Government of Canada is committed to maintaining existing markets for commercial seal products and supporting the development of potential new markets. In the 2015 federal budget, the Government of Canada announced $5.7 million over 5 years to establish systems to certify seal products resulting from hunts traditionally conducted by Aboriginal communities in order to meet the requirement set by the European Union, to provide business advice and training to help Aboriginal communities develop effective business practices, and to support efforts by the broader sealing industry to increase export market opportunities.

Myth: The seal harvest is loosely monitored and DFO doesn’t punish illegal hunting activity or practices.

Reality:

Canadian fishery officers closely monitor the seal harvest to ensure that the regulations and licence conditions are followed. They do so with regular patrols and inspections at sea, on land and in the air, as well as with the help of independent, professional at-sea observers and information gathered from the public. Violations are taken very seriously and penalties can include fines, seizure of catches and/or equipment, and licence suspensions.

A highly mobile enforcement team maintains a presence on the ice floes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the sealing season, with the assistance of the Canadian Coast Guard and the support of local police forces.

In a 2008 court decision, a sealer was fined $25,000 and was prohibited from participating in the first (and most lucrative) day of the 2009 harvest.

Myth: The Canadian government allows sealers to harvest seal pups.

Reality:

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.

Myth: There is no relationship between the seal population and the abundance of cod stocks.

Reality:

DFO has conducted extensive scientific research, in collaboration with independent scientific experts and the fishing industry, to improve our understanding of the complex relationships between grey seals and other components of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem, including Atlantic cod.

While much research remains to be done, the lack of cod recovery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence appears to be due to high mortality among larger cod. Predation by grey seals may account for up to 50 percent of this natural mortality, making them a major factor limiting the recovery of this cod stock. The Department continues to study the interaction between grey seals in Quebec and Atlantic Canada and this information will be used to inform management of both the seal harvest and the cod fishery.

Grey seals and cod

Myth: Seals are being skinned alive.

Reality:

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 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.

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 check that the animal is irreversibly unconscious or dead and then bleed the animal for a minimum of one minute prior to skinning. This is to make certain that the seal is dead.

Myth: The club – or hakapik – is an inhumane tool that has no place in today’s world.

Reality:

A hakapik is an efficient tool designed to harvest the animal quickly and humanely. 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.

The Marine Mammal Regulations stipulate that only high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks may be used in the seal harvest. All these methods are considered by experts to be humane.

Myth: Canadian harvesting practices are worse and more inhumane compared to other countries.

Reality:

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.

Sealers must follow a strict three-step process for harvesting seals that is as humane – if not more so – than most other methods of dispatching wild or domesticated animals in the world. This process ensures that animals are harvested quickly and humanely and was developed and implemented based on the recommendations from the Independent Veterinarians Working Group.

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 percent 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.

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