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Is the end near for Canada’s controversial seal hunt?

A historically low turnout for the start of Canada’s controversial seal hunt over the weekend has animal-rights activists predicting that the demise of the country’s commercial sealing industry is close at hand.

“We are very close to the end of this slaughter,” proclaimed
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Humane Society
International’s Canada headquarters. Aldworth, who has been chronicling the hunt northeast of Newfoundland, added this “could be one of the last we will ever have to see in my country.”

The annual seal hunts are important economically and traditionally for villagers on Canada’s east coast. They also keep harp seal numbers in check and reduce the impact of seal predation on the cod fishery.

But mounting opposition within and beyond Canada–sealers target mostly baby harp seals and kill them with clubs–and a shrinking market and sagging price for pelts resulted in fewer sealers venturing out during Friday’s opening day in the popular “front” region. Only a few dozen vessels participated, compared to hundreds
during previous openers.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans acknowledges a poor market but does not agree that commercial sealing is on the wane. In fact, the agency increased the harp seal quota for this year to 330,000 and cites poor ice cover as being at least partly responsible for the low turnout. (Seals haul out onto the ice to have pups and nurse, and hunters target the animals on the ice.)

“The industry has been impacted by market uncertainty created by campaigns of misinformation and the threat of a ban in the European Union,” Fisheries and Oceans spokesman John Morris said, in reference to an EU ban that was announced last year but is currently being challenged by Canada via the World Trade Organization. “Having said this, we know Canada’s sealing industry can be a profitable and diversified industry from which thousands of Canadian families can benefit.”

The harp seal population is estimated to number between 6 million and 7.7 million–triple than what it was during the 1970s. Morris said Canada is seeking new markets and is reaching out to China.

But it will be difficult to overcome so much opposition. In Canada, Senator Mac Harb has introduced a bill that would end the hunt and offer a federal buyout of the sealing industry, while the price of a seal pelt, once valued at about $100, now fetches about $15.

Many sealers are still burdened with inventory from last year, according to a report by Canada’s CBC News. One of the seal hunters, Frank Brown of Twillingate, acknowledged the difficult situation but stressed the importance of keeping this part of the local culture alive. He said, “It’s in our blood, and we have to keep it going. If not, then maybe tomorrow or the next day it won’t go on at all.”

–Photos courtesy of HSI-Canada