The hunters have vowed to proceed despite the fact that the seal population has already been devastated by global warming, which has melted the ice floes on which the mammals give birth. The lack of ice means that the seals have been forced to give birth in the water, where their pups drown.
Worldwide horror at the hunt led to a boycott of seal fur by most fashion houses and the European Union imposed a ban on certain seal products. To appease animal welfare actitivists, the sealers now try to kill the animals first by shooting them with high-powered rifles, but always carry a club to smash the skulls of any seals that are still alive. However, one group of international vets found that four out of five sealers do not check whether seals are dead before skinning them.
History of Exploitation
The harp seal is the basis of a traditional sealing industry in Newfoundland and the Gulf, which was well established by the early 18th century. At that time the manning of sealing stations was given as the major reason for breaking the ban on the colonization of Newfoundland. Initially seals were captured in nets set from shore, a practice which continues today in parts of Newfoundland, along the North Shore of Quebec and in southern Labrador. By the late 18th century Newfoundland fishermen owned 2 000 nets and earned half of their annual income from the sale of oil and skins.
The first step toward the development of a commercial offshore harvest was the participation in 1794 of the first wooden sailing ship to hunt seals. The schooner sealing fleet was not significant until the early years of the 19th century, but between 1825 and 1860, the heyday of the seal hunt, more than 300 schooners were sailing from St. John's and Conception Bay with crews exceeding 12 000 men. Eleven times during this period, catches of greater than 500 000 pelts were landed, the maximum being 744 000 in 1832. These catches were mainly young harp seals, but also included adults and immatures and a small number of hooded seals.
In 1863 a second advance in hunting technology occurred when steamers were used for the first time. The number of steam-powered sealing ships increased rapidly to 25 in 1880 and by 1911 all offshore sealing ships were steam-powered. The final evolution in sealing methods came in 1906 when the first steel-hulled ship, the S.S. Adventure, was fitted for the hunt.
Although the large-vessel hunt in March is well known, smaller vessels are also used to hunt seals. "Lands-men" in small boats and larger vessels up to 20 m in length (longliners) from the Magdalen Islands, the North Shore of Quebec, and Newfoundland take pups and older seals from late December to May. Harp seals are also taken in the Canadian Arctic and along the coast of west Greenland from June to August.
Despite the replacement of sailing ships with steam-powered vessels, catches of seals in the Northwest Atlantic declined substantially towards the latter part of the 19th century, averaging about 341 000 between 1863 and 1894. Beginning in 1895 harp seal catches were recorded separately and continued to decline, averaging 249 000 between 1895 and 1911, and 159 000 between 1912 and 1940.
In 1938, the large Norwegian sealing ships began to hunt the Northwest Atlantic population. Following the Second World War, during which little sealing occurred, the Norwegian fleet returned and gradually increased. By 1949 this resulted in a doubling of catching effort. Although mainly a Canadian and Norwegian industry, ships under the registry of Denmark, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union occasionally participated in the Atlantic coast hunt.
Annual catches of harp seals by ships from 1949 to 1961 averaged 185 000 young and 70 000 adults and bedlamers. In addition, the catch by landsmen from Cape Breton Island, Quebec, Newfoundland, Labrador, and West Greenland was approximately 55 000 annually. The total catch averaged 310 000 seals. Between 1961 and 197O, annual catches averaged 287 000 animals. Under quota management, introduced in 1971, harp catches for the decade 1971 - 1981 averaged 172 000 animals per year of which about 137 000 were pups. Catches in Canadian waters between 1984 and 1988, the period following the EEC ban noted earlier, have averaged about 39 000 animals. Although actual figures are not available, another 20 000 to 25 000 harp seals are still taken annually by Greenland hunters for a total of roughly 60 000 animals from the northwest Atlantic population.
The large catches of harp seals in the postwar years and the increased proportion of the catch comprised of older seals resulted in a marked decline in population size and pup production.
Although historical data are inadequate to accurately assess population size prior to 1950, it is evident that the reduction in stock size between 1950 and 1970 was approximately 50 % or from about 2.5 to 3.0 million animals in 1950 to about 1.5 million seals age one year and older in 1970. ~Govament of CANADA~
Seal oil capsules
Harp seals have a thick layer of blubber underneath their skin, which protects them from the freezing temperatures of the North Atlantic.
Harp seals, like all marine mammals, now have high levels of toxins in their blubber as a result of the pollution of the oceans with synthetic pesticides and industrial chemicals. The chemicals that are fat-soluble collect in the fatty tissues of small fish and crustacea and then are concentrated in the fatty tissues of the animals that eat these fish and crustacea. The higher the animal in the food chain, the greater the concentration of these poisons. Harp seals are high in the food chain and have high concentrations of poison, including mercury compounds, in their blubber.
Despite the high concentrations of toxins, the oil obtained from this blubber layer is sold in capsules as a nutrition supplement. The oil is reputed to taste bad, so that it is not sold for direct use in food (as flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, and chia seed oil are). If advanced separation processes are not implemented, or if they are insufficient, dangerous concentrations of these toxins will remain in the oil sold in these capsules.
A Chinese vendor (okokchina) deceives customers about the toxins in seal blubber with this misinformation:
"Seal Oil is "Bio-filtered" Fish Oil
As seals are much higher in the food chain than fish, seals use their digestive system to filter out
the many natural impurities found in fish."
NuTan Furs, formerly known as Atlantic Marine Products, was a major purveyor of harp seal oil (along with pelts), until it shut down (and was essentially 'acquired' by Carino) in 2012. This company was owned by the large seafood distributor, the Barry Group.
One company that uses harp seal oil (and in the past, purchased it from Atlantic Marine Products) is Terra Nova Fishery Products, founded by Dr. Cosmas Ho, a Newfoundland researcher and entrepreneur. If you wish to comment on his line of research, you can email him here. Another brand of seal oil capsules is Omega 3 Plus+.
You can help the seals by alerting those who take omega-3 supplements about the origins of these products.
Smuggling of Seal Oil Capsules
Note that neither company sells to the U.S. (legally) because all marine mammal products, including harp seal oil and pelts, are prohibited in the U.S. thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Nevertheless, smuggling of seal oil capsules into the U.S. (and perhaps other countries with bans) is occurring. In most cases in the U.S., this contraband is found in Asian grocery stores.
If you see seal oil capsules in the United States (sometimes marketed as marine oil capsules), please take a picture of the bottle, note the name and address of the store, and contact the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964 or the National Marine Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement at (301) 427-2300 or contact harpseals.org. If you see smuggled harp seal oil in other countries with bans on seal product imports, please contact harpseals.org.
◎Join the Seal Action Team! Sign up here to help end the slaughter of harp seals and other seals with Harpseals.org.
There are three reasons that seals have been hunted in Canada: cultural reasons, economic reasons, and political reasons. Those who hunt seal for cultural purposes – including Inuit hunters and those Newfoundlanders looking for a feed of flippers for supper, are not threatened by the EU ban or any other legislation, and this type of sealing seems likely to continue for as long as it is sustainable.
The economic reasons for continuing to commercially hunt seals are all but gone. Thirty years of efforts to try and realize a Chinese market for seal products have failed. Sealing is not a significant economic opportunity for Atlantic Canadians, nor can it realistically be expected to become one.
This is, after all, the 21st century and the products made from seals are largely unnecessary . And yet, the federal government continues to waste tax dollars on support for the hunt, which in recent years has provided only part-time employment for fewer than 500 sealers.
The only type of sealing that remains in Canada is that done for political purposes.
The seal hunt is supported by Canadian politicians who think it will help them win votes in eastern Canada, facilitated by a private Norwegian company that is happy to take Canadian government funds, and conducted by individuals that continue this dangerous activity based on the false promises made to them by these politicians, in the hopes of earning a few hundred (or if they are fortunate – thousand) dollars.
There has to be a better way.
Regardless of the WTO Panel’s ultimate ruling, the EU is not going to suddenly start importing seal products. The world does not appear to want – nor need – products made from dead seals, and the only ones profiting from the current situation are the politicians.
IFAW is willing to work with sealers and sealing communities towards fair and just compensation for those affected by the death of this industry. Sealers can continue to complain about the past, place blame on NGOs, and look to governments for more handouts - but if history is any indication this is not going to change anything.
We will see more false hopes, more trade bans, more taxes wasted. Like commercial whaling, the commercial seal hunt needs to end once and for all.
It’s time to move on, and with Canadians’ resourcefulness and some innovative thinking, I know we can do better.