When the Department of Fisheries and Oceans polled the Canadian public in 2000, it found seven in 10 Canadians were unfamiliar with the facts of the seal hunt. Having seen some of the recent Canadian media stories on the topic, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Earlier this month, I escorted Paul and Heather McCartney to the ice floes to witness the spectacular harp seal nursery and draw attention to the seal hunt, set to begin just a few weeks later. Unfortunately, many of the media stories that appeared subsequently were slanted, and at times even absurd.
One national TV station reported that the seals hunted today are adults, and included an accusation that the McCartneys were misleading the public by being photographed with seal pups. They were utterly wrong.
Canadian government kill reports prove 99 per cent of the seals slaughtered last year were just two months of age or less. Over the past five years, the majority of the seals killed have been younger than 1 month old. At the time of slaughter, many of these pups had yet to eat their first solid meal or take their first swim â€” hardly “adult” seals by anyone’s standards.
Then there was a national editorial accusing animal protection groups of trying to “slaughter the incomes of Newfoundlanders.”
But even the Newfoundland government says there are only about 4,000 active sealers each year and if you do the math, they earn less than 5 per cent of their incomes from killing seals.
McCartney proposed a fair licence buy-back plan that would fairly compensate fishermen should the seal hunt close.
This is hardly an attempt to take money away from Newfoundlanders.
And it’s not a bad solution when you consider that ongoing boycotts of Canadian seafood and tourism will continue until the seal hunt is ended for good, and those boycotts are costing this country far more than a buy-back plan could ever cost to implement.
Other media outlets sunk to new lows, comparing animal protection groups to terrorists, criticizing McCartney’s musical abilities, and trying to insinuate (without basis) that the McCartneys were uninformed on the issues. The Telegram actually saw fit to print a comment from one reader who suggested the “little woman” (Heather McCartney) should just stay home.
Many stories regurgitated that tired old sealing industry line that animal protection groups campaign to end the seal hunt to raise funds. Of course, given the groups involved are non-profit, this is about as logical as saying the Canadian Cancer Society uses cancer as a fundraising tool.
The CBC chose not to document the McCartneys trip to the ice floes because “the hunt has not started yet so it’s not news.”
Incredibly, just days later, CBC decided it would be news to try to follow activists at work to get the inside story on their tactics to stop the hunt.
There were the inevitable citings of a report used by the fisheries department, which supposedly suggests up to 98 per cent of the seals are killed in an “acceptably humane way.”
Of course, media outlets chose not to explain this “study” was performed on board sealing vessels in the presence of enforcement officers, when sealers knew they were being watched. As much as you would not speed while driving past a police car, sealers are unlikely to violate regulations in front of enforcement officers.
And there was no reference to another study conducted by a team of independent veterinarians in the same year .
It concluded in 42 per cent of cases studied, the seals had likely been skinned alive while conscious and that the hunt causes “considerable and unacceptable suffering.”
There were the usual claims that the harp seal population has “tripled” over the past three decades. But reporters left out an important qualification: The population has simply been recovering from an all-time low in the 1970s (caused by over-hunting in the 1950s and ’60s).
They also failed to report that today’s kill levels actually exceed those of a half century ago, when the sealing industry almost wiped out the harp seal population.
In the end, the debate rages on. And what may be overlooked by much of the Canadian media is the 300,000 seal pups that will be clubbed and shot and maybe even skinned alive for fur coats in the next few weeks.
So I have a message for Canadian editors who think this hunt should go on. Portraying the assault and battery of 3-week-old seal pups as an acceptable Canadian activity is a betrayal of the facts and the overwhelming majority of Canadians who oppose this cruel and needless slaughter.
You don’t have to witness the hunt yourselves; consider yourselves lucky. But I do, and this will be my eighth year observing this slaughter first-hand.
In those years, I’ve been forced by law not to intervene as seal pups are literally skinned alive in front of me, as wounded seals are left for more than an hour to choke on their own blood, as injured baby seals wake up in piles of dead pups, covered in blood, bewildered and in pain. These are images I’ll never get out of my mind.
For the record, I grew up in Newfoundland, I know sealers, and I’ve spent 10 years researching the sealing industry. Something most people fail to understand is what this job actually means for the people involved.
Even sealers will tell you it’s brutal, dehumanizing, and miserable work. It’s why many fishermen never return after their first year at the hunt, and 99 per cent of Newfoundlanders are not involved in any aspect of the industry.
I’m leaving to witness yet another seal hunt and it’s my hope Canadian media will try to provide a more balanced overview of the issues this year.
Because as McCartney said in his quiet and measured way, “When you consider all the facts of this issue, you can arrive at only one conclusion â€” it just has to stop.”
————————————————————Rebecca Aldworth is director, Canadian Wildlife Issues, for the Humane Society of the United States. Tortonto Star