A lone baby harp seal cried on a ice floe off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The seal was only about 14 days old, and she had already witnessed a lifetime of horror.
Hunters had come there. They hadn’t killed her, but they’d shot and beaten all of her friends, who were a few days older than her. Now, only their blood remained. As the baby seal crawled across the ice, crying out in confusion, her white fur soaked in their red blood.
For the past 18 years, Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International (HSI), has watched countless scenes like this while observing the seal hunts that take place in eastern Canada each year.
Warning: Graphic photos below
“What we see out there is incredible suffering that most adult people can’t stand to look at on video,” Aldworth told The Dodo. “I’ve seen seals who have been shot in the face, who have been left crawling across the ice, bleeding out, trying to escape before they’re finally finished off. I’ve seen seals crying out in pain when they’re being impaled on metal hooks and dragged across the ice.”
While this sounds unthinkably cruel, seal hunting in Canada is completely legal. And hunters usually target vulnerable baby seals for their fur, then sell their pelts to manufacturers who make fur coats and other clothing items.
Seal hunting can take place year round in Canada, but since most hunters target babies for their fur, they wait until spring, when the seal pups are born. That said, the Canadian government usually prohibits hunting activity between mid-May and the beginning of April, according to Aldworth, which is when mothers give birth and nurse their pups.
But this year, the hunt is starting earlier than usual — in fact, it began today.
“A company called PhocaLux lobbied the Canadian government to open the seal hunt early,” Aldworth said. “They claim that they’re trying to hunt adult seals … for meat and oil.”
While the Canadian government has prohibited PhocaLux from taking seals from whelping areas — that is, the places where mother seals give birth and nurse their babies — the babies would still be affected, Aldworth explained.
“There is no one distinct whelping patch,” Aldworth said. “Harp seal mothers give birth in various areas all over the coast of Newfoundland.”
It’s also impossible to distinguish adult males and females, so hunters could easily kill nursing moms, Aldworth said.
“Harp seal mothers who are nursing their pups often swim away from their pups,” Aldworth said. “So there’s every chance that a nursing mother could be killed in this hunt. Sealers don’t see the pup — they see the mother seal on an ice floe further away and kill her, not knowing that she has a nursing pup. At that point, the unweaned pup is left to starve to death on the ice.”
PhocaLux only has a permit to hunt harp seals — not for the hooded seals who are usually killed alongside the harp seals. Even so, Aldworth believes that hooded seals would still be affected.
“The noise of sealing boats smashing through the ice, gunfire, dying seals is going to be heavily disruptive to the hood seal nursery, to the nursing mothers and their pups,” Aldworth said. “So that’s a big problem.”
PhocaLux could not immediately be reached for comment.
“What they’re doing is reprehensible,” Aldworth said. “They’re allowing commercial sealers to go out and slaughter animals at a time when harp seals and hooded seals are giving birth to and nursing their pups. There is no excuse for the Canadian government to have allowed this to happen.”
The Canadian government, however, has a different opinion.
“Fisheries and Oceans Canada supports and regulates the seal harvest and is committed to ensuring it is sustainable,” Vance Chow, a communications advisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told The Dodo. “It is an important economic and cultural activity in communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Arctic. As well, the Government of Canada supports a humane and well-regulated seal harvest and is committed to ensuring it is sustainable. The Government of Canada does not tolerate inhumane practices in the seal harvest. To ensure this, Fisheries officers routinely conduct inspections during the seal harvest at sea, in port and using aerial surveillance to record sealing activity.”
Unfortunately, the seal hunts won’t stop with PhocaLux. Around April 10, other companies will start hunting too, targeting defenceless baby seals who have just been weaned from their mother’s milk, but aren’t yet old enough to swim properly and find their own food. The hunters will shoot the baby seals with shotguns, club them with bats or impale them with sharp picks.
They don’t die quickly either — it’s often a slow, painful death, according to Aldworth.
“The sea ice is breaking up earlier in the year because of climate change, so we’re seeing sealers resort to long distance shooting … from sealing vessels from a distance of approximately 40 to 50 meters,” Aldworth said. “The problem with that is that the boats are moving, the seals are moving, the water is moving, so there’s a very high wounding rate with sealing. We often see seals get shot in the back and the flipper and being left to suffer in agony, crawling through their own blood on the ice floes.”
“These aren’t even not extreme examples from the commercial seal hunt,” Aldworth added. “This is everywhere you look. This is almost every kill you document. It’s a heartbreaking slaughter to observe.”
A typical vessel used for sealing can take up to 400 seals per day, according to Aldworth, and individual sealers are allowed to kill as many as 250 seals each day. Over an entire season, this can add up to hundreds of thousands of seals.
Aldworth believes that the hunts would take a massive toll on seal populations, but unfortunately, there aren’t any reliable statistics to support this.
“The Canadian government tries to model numbers on pup production surveys,” Aldworth said. “So they literally go out there and visually count how many pups they see, and then they estimate how many there are in areas where they haven’t been able to count, and then they estimate how many pups haven’t been born yet and then they estimate how many pups might have been in the water, and using all of these rather arbitrary variables, they come up with a total estimate for the harp seal population.”
“In our view, those population estimates are grossly inflated, but based on those numbers, they decide how many seals can be removed without reducing the population below certain levels,” Aldworth added.
While many Canadians oppose the seal hunt, the government continues to support the industry — and subsidize it with taxpayer money. But Aldworth believes that individuals can help end this industry.
“When Canadians start making it clear to their elected representatives that this is an issue that they intend to vote on, that there will be a loss of political support in the rest of Canada if our tax dollars continue to be used to subsidize this kind of cruelty — that’s when I think we’re going to see a federal change in direction,” she said. “So I would strongly encourage people to contact their members of Parliament to express their opposition to the commercial seal hunt.”
But it’s not just Canadians who can make a difference — anyone can help, according to Aldworth.
“If people live in a country like the United States, where there is a prohibition on trade on commercial field products, they can express to their government about how important it is that the legislation be protected,” Alworth said. yo learn more about what you can do to stop the seal hunts in Canada, visit HSI’s website.