Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Fisheries and Oceans Canada

March 11, 2005 10:57 ET

Commentary: 'The Science Behind the Seal Hunt' by Geoff Regan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans



MARCH 11, 2005 - 10:57 ET

Commentary: 'The Science Behind the Seal Hunt' by
Geoff Regan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(CCNMatthews - March 11, 2005) - While I do not expect
everyone to support Canada's sealing industry, I would expect
organizations like Greenpeace to examine the full range of scientific
data about this industry before attempting to discredit DFO's
peer-reviewed data outright. In reviewing media stories about
Greenpeace's most recent report on the seal hunt, it is clear that this
organization is choosing to ignore the vast amount of scientific data
that guides our management plan.

Canada's seal population is healthy and abundant. The harp seal herd -
the most important seal herd for this industry - is estimated at around
five million animals, nearly the highest level ever recorded, and almost
triple what it was in the 1970s.

Our management plan for the annual seal hunt is based on solid science
that is reviewed by scientists from Canada, the United States and
Europe. We monitor the population yearly, and conduct an intensive
survey every five years.

We recently completed a survey in 2004, and the results will be
available shortly, in time to begin planning a management approach for
the 2006 hunt. I should point out that, once again, scientists from
around the world will participate in the review of the 2004 survey
results. In addition, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) will participate in the review.
I understand that the IFAW will be presenting an alternative management
model for scientific consideration at a meeting in May.

With this scientific data in hand, DFO draws up a management plan, based
on sound conservation principles. We establish a healthy baseline for
the hunt that ensures a seal herd of 70 per cent of the current
population of around five million. Our goal is simple: to maintain a
healthy, strong, sustainable population for years to come.

Despite Greenpeace's claims to the contrary, our program considers a
range of variables in mortality, reproductive rates, ice conditions, and
the size of Greenland's seal harvest. All of these variables are taken
into account when we make our population prediction. A "quick-response"
process is also in place in case of an environmental catastrophe, to
examine the impact of such a catastrophe on the seal herd.

It is unfortunate that Greenpeace has taken this approach to the issue,
given their measured approach to it in the past. It is also unfortunate
that they decided not to participate in the 2002 Atlantic Seal Forum,
which followed the last harp-seal population survey in 1999, and that
they chose not to consult DFO or its vast amount of peer-reviewed data
before issuing their most recent report. I am confident that their
participation at the 2002 Forum - along with a careful, fair-minded
examination of our scientific data - would have prevented the inclusion
of the numerous errors contained in their report.

Their recent attempts to discredit DFO's management plan, and the
science behind it, against all the evidence, also lead me to wonder why
this is being done at this time. While I know this issue arouses much
debate, especially in urban Canada, by publicly demanding an immediate
halt to the seal hunt, Greenpeace is not only calling into question
solid, peer-reviewed science, but also jeopardizing the livelihoods of
the hundreds of coastal communities who rely on the seal hunt.

Seals are a valuable, well-managed natural resource that provides income
to many coastal towns and villages where few other economic
opportunities exist. The seal hunt is conducted in a humane and tightly
regulated manner. In fact, Canada's seal-hunting methods have been
studied and approved by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing, and
the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

I sincerely hope that Greenpeace will choose to attend the 2005 Atlantic
Seal Forum next fall, so their position can be fully considered. I
invite them to come to the table and work with us - and with groups like
the IFAW and the WWF - to ensure healthy and sustainable seal
populations for the future.

For further information I invite anyone interested to visit the
following website:


NOTE TO EDITORS: The following points are intended to address the
current myths and misconceptions surrounding the Atlantic Canada seal



Myth #1: The Canadian government allows sealers to kill adorable little
white seals.

Reality: The image of the whitecoat harp seal is used prominently by
seal hunt opponents. This image gives the false impression that
vulnerable seal pups are targeted by sealers during the commercial hunt.

The hunting of harp seal pups (whitecoats) and hooded seal pups
(bluebacks) is illegal - and has been since 1987. Marine Mammal
Regulations prohibit the trade, sale or barter of the fur of these pups.
Furthermore, seals cannot be harvested when they are in breeding or
birthing grounds.

Myth #2: Seals are being skinned alive.

Reality: The most recent Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA)
Report and numerous reports mentioned by the Malouf Commission (1987)
indicate that this is not true.

Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed;
however seals have a swimming reflex that is active - even after death.
This reflex falsely appears as though the animal is still alive when it
is clearly dead - similar to the reflex in chickens.

Myth #3: Seals are not independent animals when they are killed - they
still rely on their mothers and can't even swim or fend for themselves.

Reality: Only weaned, self-reliant seals are hunted after they have been
left by their mothers to fend for themselves.

The vast majority of harp seals are taken after more than 25 days of
age, after their white coat has moulted. Harp seals have the ability to
swim at this stage of development. They are also opportunistic feeders
and prey on whatever food source in readily available to them.

Myth #4: Countless seals that slip off the ice after being clubbed or
shot are lost and never accounted for.

Reality: "Struck and lost" data from at-sea observers as well as the
CVMA indicate that this is not true. In fact, the record of struck and
loss for the Canadian commercial seal hunt stands at less than five per

For one thing, most of the harp seals taken in Canada are hunted on the
ice rather than in the water and this makes losses much lower than in
places like Greenland. Second, harp seals that are hunted have very
high levels of body fat, making them quite buoyant. That, coupled with
the buoyant qualities of salt water, make it quite easy for sealers to
retrieve a seal should they slip into the water after being shot.

Myth #5: The Canadian government is allowing sealers to kill nearly one
million seals to help with the recovery of cod stocks.

Reality: Several factors have contributed to the lack of recovery of
Atlantic cod stocks, such as fishing effort, poor growth and physical
condition of the fish, and environmental changes. Seals eat cod, but
seals also eat other fish that prey on cod, therefore it is difficult to
hold any one factor responsible for the decline in cod stocks.

In addition, there are many uncertainties in the estimates of the amount
of fish consumed by seals. The commercial quota is established on sound
conservation principles, not an attempt to assist in the recovery of
groundfish stocks.

Myth #6: The club - or hakapik - is a barbaric tool that has no place in
today's world.

Reality: Clubs have been used by sealers since the onset of the hunt
hundreds of years ago. Hakapiks originated with Norwegian sealers who
found it very effective. Over the years, studies conducted by the
various veterinary experts, and American studies carried out between
1969 and 1972 on the Pribilof Islands hunt (Alaska) have consistently
proven that the club or hakapik is an efficient tool designed to kill
the animal quickly and humanely. A recent report in September, 2002, by
the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, had results that parallel
these findings.

Myth #7: The methods used to kill seals are far less humane than those
used to hunt or slaughter any other domestic or wild animal.

Reality: Hunting methods were studied by the Royal Commission on Sealing
in Canada and they found that the clubbing of seals, when properly
performed, 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.

Myth #8: The hunt is unsustainable.

Reality: Since the 1960's, environmental groups have been saying the
seal hunt is unsustainable. In fact, the harp seal population is healthy
and abundant. In excess of five million animals, the Northwest Atlantic
seal herd is nearly triple what it was in the 1970s. DFO sets quotas at
levels that ensure the health and abundance of seal herds. In no way are
seals - and harp seals in particular - an "endangered species".

Myth #9: The "hunt" is simply a front for what is actually a cull aimed
at reducing the population of harp seals.

Reality: The seal hunt is not a cull. It is a sustainable, commercially
viable fishery based on sound conservation principles. In fact, the
Department has adopted an Objective-Based Fisheries Management approach
using control rules and reference points to establish management
measures for the harp seal hunt. This process will facilitate a
market-driven harvest that will enable sealers to maximize their
benefits without compromising conservation. If the current three-year
Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is fully taken, the population will still
remain well above 70 per cent of its highest known abundance, found in
the latest survey in 1996.

DFO takes a number of factors into consideration when establishing TAC
levels for harp seals, including - ice conditions, pup mortality,
natural mortality, incidental harvest or by-catch, the Greenland and
Arctic hunts and commercial harvest levels.

Myth #10: The seal hunt provides such low economic return for sealers
that it is not an economically viable industry.

Reality: The landed value of seals was $16 million in 2004. Pelt prices
as high as $70 have recently been recorded. Seals are a significant
source of income for some individual sealers. The money is earned over a
very short period. Sealing also creates employment opportunities for
buying and processing plants.

While sealing income may seem negligible by some US or European
standards, sealers themselves have stated that their income from sealing
can represent from 25-35 per cent of their total annual income. Sealing
also represents benefits to thousands of families in Eastern Canada at a
time of year when other fishing options are unavailable or limited at
best, in many remote, coastal communities.

Myth #11: The Canadian government provides subsidies for the seal hunt.

Reality: The Government of Canada does not subsidize the seal hunt.
Sealing is an economically viable industry. All subsidies ceased in
2001. Even before that time, any subsidies provided were for market and
product development, including a meat subsidy, to encourage full use of
the seal. In fact, government has provided fewer subsidies to the
sealing industry than recommended by the Royal Commission on Sealing.

Myth #12: The seal hunt is not worth it - seals are only taken for their
fur and the rest of the animal is wasted.

Reality: Seals have been harvested for food, fuel and shelter and other
products for hundreds of years. The subsistence hunt is a valuable link
to Canadian cultural heritage. Canada exports seal products in three
forms: pelts, oil and meat. Traditionally, the pelts have been the main
commodity, but production of seal oil for human consumption has grown
substantially in recent years. Seal oil markets remain positive, and a
large percentage of seal oil is finding its way into areas other than
traditional marine and industrial oils.

DFO encourages the fullest use of seals, with the emphasis on leather,
oil, handicrafts, and in recent years, meat for human and animal
consumption as well as seal oil capsules rich in Omega-3. Any seal parts
that are left on the ice provide sustenance to a wide variety of marine
scavengers such as crustaceans, seabirds and fish.

Myth #13: The seal hunt is loosely monitored and DFO doesn't punish
illegal hunting activity or practices.

Reality: The seal hunt is closely monitored and tightly regulated.
Canada's enforcement of sealing regulations is thorough and
comprehensive. Regulations and licensing policies stipulate hunting
seasons, quotas, vessel size and methods of dispatch. Fishery Officers
monitor the seal hunt in numerous ways to ensure sealers comply with
Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations. They conduct surveillance of the
hunt by means of aerial patrols, surface (vessel) patrols, dockside
inspections of vessels at landing sites and inspections at buying and
processing facilities. In 2004, Fishery Officers spent approximately
8600 hours monitoring and enforcing the hunt. In the last five years, 94
charges were laid and convictions were upheld in 57 of those cases.

Sealers are well trained in humane hunting methods and are, as a group,
responsible and law abiding. Assumptions that large numbers of sealers
are violating the laws and regulations governing the hunt are unfounded.

Myth #14: If sealers take more than their allotted quota, DFO simply
further raises the quota for them.

Reality: The Government of Canada has strict conservation measures in
place, and is committed to the careful management of all seals to ensure
strong, healthy populations in the years to come. 2005 is the last year
of a three-year harp seal hunt management plan. The harp seal TAC was
set at 975,000 for 2003-2005 and it has not been raised. This multi-year
management plan was developed in consultation with more than 100
stakeholders, including conservation groups, at the 2002 Seal Forum in
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.

There have been two instances when TACs were allowed to be exceeded to
allow sealers disadvantaged by environmental conditions to have an
opportunity to seal after good hunting in other areas had allowed the
full TAC to be taken early.

These decisions were made only because the increased hunting would not
jeopardize conservation and sustainability.

Myth #15: Anyone can get a licence - even those who have never hunted
before, and there are no training requirements.

Reality: Before sealers can qualify for a professional licence they must
obtain an assistant licence and work under the supervision of a
professional sealer for two years. Individuals applying for a personal
use licence must demonstrate they apply good sealing practices to ensure
the seal is killed in a quick and humane fashion. Personal sealing
licences will only be issued to individuals who had a licence, a valid
hunter's capability certificate, or big game licence the previous year
and who have attended a mandatory training session.

Myth #16: The majority of Canadians are opposed to the seal hunt.

Reality: Animal rights groups currently campaigning against the seal
hunt cite a 2004 Ipsos-Reid poll stating that 71 per cent of Canadians
are opposed to the hunt. In fact, Canadians support federal policies
regarding the seal hunt. An Ipsos-Reid survey conducted in February 2005
concluded that 60 per cent of Canadians are in favour of a responsible
hunt. The survey methodology and results of this poll are available on


Contact Information

    Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa
    Christiane Parcigneau
    Media Relations
    (613) 998-1530
    Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa
    Office of the Minister
    Brian Underhill
    Director of Communications
    (613) 992-3474
    Internet :