Baby seals. We’ve all seen pictures of them, like the one here. We’ve all gone ‘ahhhh’. With their gorgeous innocent eyes poking out from their snow-white coats, cute just doesn’t do them justice.
They are also totally defenceless, no matter how protective their mothers.
For the thousands of Whitecoat harp seal pups recently born in Newfoundland that means they’re more than likely to suffer a gut-wrenching, slow and agonizing death within the next few weeks, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Canada’s annual commercial harp seal hunt has kicked off again in Newfoundland. This year, the government-approved kill quota (total allowable catch) has been increased by 70,000. This means 400,000 baby seals can legitimately be slaughtered. And this will happen thanks to the financial support of the Canadian government, which argues the practice is vital for the survival of indigenous people and that necessary safeguards are in place to ensure the killing is done as humanely as possible.
Shocking support from a conservation giant
Canada’s annual seal hunt and the increase in the kill quota has been supported, some may be surprised to learn, by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). “WWF does not actively oppose the annual hunt by indigenous people as long as the hunt is of no threat to the population of over 5 million harp seals, and is based on a scientifically based management programme,” said Elizabeth Davis, Supporter Care Executive of WWF in Britain, in response to an email from a member of Harpseals.org, a non-profit organization working to bring an end to the hunt.
“WWF is not an animal welfare organisation…”
Elizabeth Davis, WWF, Supporter Care Executive
WWF is convinced, she added, that hunting, fishing and gathering by Inuit in Nunavut is the only real option to protect the environment from far more damaging industrial uses of the landscape and the seas. “In other words if one denies the rights of these indigenous people to hunt, fish and gather wildlife in Nunavut, much of this wildlife would be lost forever,” she suggested.
Davis also pointed out: “WWF is a conservation organisation with a clear mandate to protect and conserve habitats and populations of the world’s most endangered species, from local as well as global threats. WWF is not an animal welfare organisation, but takes every care when working with animals to ensure that they are treated as well as can be, and that if animals are killed it is done as humanely as possible.”
Davis makes a solid case in defence of WWF’s position in her email, you could argue, but it has sparked fury amongst some of its supporters. In one of the most high-profile responses, famed French film actress and animal welfare activist Brigitte Bardot expressed her “profound indignation, deep sadness and disgust” about WWF’s support for the new quota, which she called a “scandalous position”.
“I saw the massacre of these baby seals, their heads smashed by clubs and picks … I feel betrayed, it has attacked my most symbolic battle”
Brigitte Bardot on WWF’s position
In a letter to WWF, she wrote: “I went to the ice pack more than 25 years ago, I saw the massacre of these baby seals, their heads smashed by clubs and picks, I saw these bleeding bodies, these babies struggling for life whilst being skinned. I will never forget these pictures, the screams of pain, they still torture me but they have given me the strength to sacrifice my whole life to defend the animal’s one.”
Bardot has often supported WWF and allowed her image to be used for some of its programmes. “I feel betrayed, it has attacked my most symbolic battle,” she lamented.
A picture speaks a thousand words
“Contrary to what the Canadian government claims, the commercial seal hunt is not humane, the hunting regulations are not being followed, and there is virtually no enforcement,” explains Fred O’Regan, the advocacy organisation’s President and CEO.
“Baby seals just a few weeks old are being shot at on small pans of ice, then clubbed or hooked and brought onboard the sealing ships to be skinned,” adds IFAW’s seal campaign director, Sheryl Fink, who has witnessed the slaughter firsthand. “Few sealers have been checking to see if the seals are unconscious before hooking or slicing them open.”
In one horrendous incident, captured by IFAW on video, a young battered seal – still alive — is dumped in the bottom of a small boat while the sealers continued hunting. This poor defenceless seal pup is then seen reaching up and waving its flipper repeatedly, “clearly still alive and in terrible agony”.
Be warned, the video is stomach churning, but it’s clear evidence of exactly what’s going on out there and does make one question WWF’s position on the hunt all the more. Whether WWF likes it or not, much of the support it receives is given by people with a simple passion for animal protection and in the belief WWF would not support such a barbaric practice.
During the Canadian hunt, some seals are also being killed for no reason, their bodies left to rot on the ice, Fink has observed. This, she points out, is also in clear violation of Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations.
With this fresh evidence now widely available, it remains to be seen if WWF will change its position on the hunt. But IFAW, Harpseals.org, and other organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are lobbying hard against the hunt, with growing support from stars such as Ke$ha and Iggy Pop, as well as Bardot.
The campaign has yielded significant results so far. “Over 200,000 seals were saved last year,” says IFAW’s O’Regan. “And this year only 27 sealing boats have joined this hunt so far, compared to 58 from last year. This is significantly down from years past.”
Many professional hunters have recognized that seal hunting is no longer an economically viable business. “Most sealers are making the economically viable choice and fishing for crab instead of participating in a cruel seal hunt that is worth less and less each year,” explains Fink. “Even those who ignore the cruelty involved in the commercial seal hunt cannot ignore the numbers.”
“This cruel hunt just isn’t worth it. Not from an animal welfare perspective, not from the perspective of the sealers and not from an economic perspective for Canadians,”
Sheryl Fink, IFAW Seals Campaign Director
According to IFAW, the landed value of the hunt was just over C$1 million in 2010, yet an estimated $2.3 million was spent to support it. Meantime, a 2010 study by Professor John Livernois at the University of Guelph found that ending the commercial seal hunt would save Canada at least $7 million each year.
“This cruel hunt just isn’t worth it. Not from an animal welfare perspective, not from the perspective of the sealers and not from an economic perspective for Canadians,” says Fink. “Seals and sealers need protection and they are not getting it. With its current approach, the government is failing. It is time that the Canadian government stood up, did the right thing, ended the seal hunt and transitioned sealers into stable and secure alternatives.”
The Canadian government, which uses taxpayers’ money to subsidize the annual seal hunts, does not appear to be listening however. IFAW’s campaign has succeeded in shutting down many markets for seal pelts, including the sector’s primary market of Europe. But while the EU ban on seal products is in place, the Canadian government announced plans in February to launch a formal challenge to it at the World Trade Organisation. The challenge is set to cost Canadian taxpayers around $10 million.
That same month, the Canadian government also gave the green light to a new grey seal hunt in Nova Scotia. Permitting the slaughter of 60,000 pups, it basically authorized the death of roughly 80% of the grey seal pups born this year, says IFAW.
Campaigners against the seal hunts insist there is no economic, scientific or ethical argument that can support the shooting, clubbing and skinning of defenseless seal pups. While being another long-time supporter of WWF and understanding its conservation/fight against extinction-only logic, I too must nonetheless agree with the anti-hunt campaigners including Brigitte Bardot. It seems to make sense – economically and morally – to bring this vile trade to an end.
With the latest evidence at hand, supporting it seems counter to every conservation – be it human, habitat or animal welfare – bone in my body.
The anti-hunt groups are urging citizens around the world to help bring the slaughter to an end by writing to Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Using a pre-prepared template on IFAW’s website, or alternatively via PETA’s site, anyone can easily urge Harper to “do the right thing and protect, not slaughter, Canada’s beautiful wild seals”. As O’Reagan says: “The fate of this year’s generation of seal pups is in our hands.”
The same is true for the fate of future generations too, I would add!
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