The baby seals look like stuffed animals come to life, so adorable it’s almost impossible not to coo over them. But the newborn seals on Canada’s freezing ice floes are fair game for hunters, who can get up to $70 for their pelts and blubber.
Animal rights activists have long sought to have the annual hunt outlawed, but sealers say the hunt has been a part of their life for centuries, and besides, it’s crucial to their livelihoods.
The controversy attracted Paul McCartney and his wife to Prince Edward Island to protest the hunt and pressure the Canadian government and the fishing industry to abandon the practice. AP Toronto Bureau Chief BETH DUFF-BROWN braved the subzero temperatures to cover the story.
asap: Can you describe the Gulf of St. Lawrence landscape?
Duff Brown: It’s spectacular. It’s just miles and miles of marshmallow-white, cloudy-looking lakes that go forever. And you’ll have some beautiful sky-blue ice reflecting the water and the sky. It’s quite lovely.
We went for about an hour (in a helicopter) straight over the ice and then suddenly you see thousands of these mother harp seals and their little pups waddling along trying to keep up with them.
asap: How does the hunt work?
Duff-Brown: The mothers leave the pups in about two weeks and the pups begin to lose their fur. They’re filled with their mother’s milk, so fat they can barely move, and this is the point where naturally they’re supposed to teach themselves how to swim and hunt and fish. But this is the time when the hunters come out — they’re so fat that they’re very vulnerable. That’s the time when the hunt is officially on. They can’t really escape from hunters. The animal rights activists say it’s not really a hunt, it’s a slaughter because the seals can’t really move.
asap: What’s the history of the seal hunt?
Duff-Brown: It dates back hundreds of years, and thousands of years in the Inuit part of Canada up north. The Inuit need the seal skin to survive and live off the seal oil in the blubber and eat the seal meat. Generally, animal rights groups don’t have problems with the Inuit hunt that starts in November because they understand that’s part of their survival.
But the hunt moves down to where we were, which is the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec. Here, it’s the fishermen hunting seals. When cod stocks dried up in the mid-’90s, the government reinstated this hunt because during these frigid months, the fishermen don’t have any other income. Seals are abundant, there are about 6 million of them, so their feeling is that this is an excellent income for them to supplement when they’re not able to do their other seasonal fishing.
Fishermen may make $30-$40,000 a year, and they can make up to $10,000 just during the two-week hunt. They say celebrities come parachuting in and don’t understand that they don’t have any other option. The fishermen say it’s very cruel and they don’t enjoy it, but they need to do it.
asap: What did Paul McCartney say about the seals?
Duff-Brown: He was saying today that a lot of people forget that this hunt happens. Many countries have stopped importing any seal products, they’ve been banned in the U.S., but it was quietly reinstated in Canada in the mid-’90s. He understands that its part of the tradition and the culture, but so was slavery so was apartheid. He said it was a brutal, barbaric act and they should find something else to do, and he talked about eco-tourism because it’s so spectacular out there. They’ve turned whale-watching into quite an industry, why not have seal-watching?
asap: Are there any signs that the Canadian government might move to ban seal hunting?
Duff-Brown: I don’t see any movement yet to have it banned. The federal minister in charge of fisheries and oceans said the seal hunt will continue and it’s a viable and well-managed hunt. I don’t see any movement yet to have it banned.
It’s only $16.5 million — that’s what they got last year in the seal hunt. It’s not a lot of money. Some say why not just subsidize the fishermen, though they already are subsidized. Some say why not just buy back their licenses for a big sum and compensate them for several years while they find other means of income and save Canada’s reputation. Associated Press