Seal pups 'sliced open alive': horror of Canadian hunt prompts Russian skins ban

| 23rd December 2011

Seal hunting continues in Canada and Namibia despite widespread public outrage

Russia's decision to ban the import and exports of harp seal skins is a big step forward for the campaign against the Canadian seal hunt, says Robbie Marsland, Director of IFAW-UK

Seal protection took a massive leap forward with the news that the Russian Federation, along with its customs partners Belarus and Kazakhstan, has banned the import and export of harp seal skins. 
Russia is said to be by far the largest market for Canadian seal pelts, so this could spell the death knell for the annual seal slaughter.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) opposes the seal hunt as it is cruel and unnecessary. I’m sad to say that I have witnessed seals being clubbed or shot and skinned so that their fur can be used to provide luxury products for the fashion industry. IFAW has been campaigning to end commercial seal hunting for more than 40 years, and its work helped bring about the end of Russia’s own seal hunt in 2009.

At the time, Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources Yury Trutnev said, 'The bloody seal slaughter, the killing of the defenceless animals, which can’t be even called a "hunt", is now prohibited in Russia as it is in most developed countries. It is a serious step towards the conservation of biodiversity in Russia.' Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called seal hunting a 'bloody industry' and something that 'should have been banned years ago.'

The Canadian seal hunt remains the biggest slaughter of marine mammals in the world today. The hunters and their backers in the Canadian Government claim the slaughter is humane. But following the hunt last April, IFAW’s eyewitness campaigner Sheryl Fink reported, 'we watched the sealing vessel Makin Waves bear down on two pups, one that had been shot, the other that was still very much alive and looking around. We expected the pups to be crushed under the hull. Then we watched in horror as one of the men on the boat reached down and jabbed the live pup with his long-handled gaff. The frightened pup whirled and snapped at the gaff, trying to bite at it in self defence. But she didn’t stand a chance. With another swing, the sealer slammed the steel hook into the little pup’s face, and lifted her up into the boat.

There was absolutely no question as to what we were seeing: here was a live, conscious, seal pup being brutally hooked through her eye socket and lifted into a boat.' She also witnessed another another seal pup sliced open while it was still alive and conscious.

Not only is the commercial seal hunt cruel and inhumane, it is also a waste of Canadian taxpayers’ money. The landed value of the 2010 commercial seal hunt was just over $1 million, yet the Canadian government spent an estimated $2.3 million  to support it. And there are alternatives for the sealers - many are turning to the more lucrative crab fishing, which demonstrates that the small income earned from the seal hunt industry can be easily replaced. 
Public opinion across European countries that were markets for seal products remains strongly against the seal hunt and now politicians in the Canadian Parliament are beginning to speak out against the subsidised hunt. The USA banned the import of seal products back in 1972. The European Union followed with a ban on non-Inuit seal products in 2009. IFAW believes the Canadian government and the sealing industry should acknowledge the reality that markets for seal products are disappearing.
There is an additional long-term threat to the seals. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species notes that harp seals are going to be negatively affected by climate change, as they need the ice for giving birth, nursing and resting, and seal mortality is higher in years of poor ice conditions. Therefore additional pressure on seal numbers from hunting can only make the situation worse.
According to Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Dr. Mike Hammill, the harp seal population has dropped to some 7.7 million animals, due to a dramatic decline in reproductive rates and lack of food. The lack of ice in recent years has also played a role according to Dr Hammill, with barely 20 per cent of newborn pups surviving their first six weeks due to poor ice conditions. In order to respect the Department’s seal management plan, a quota reduction of 25 per cent would be required for 2012 – something that has only happened four times in the 40 year history of quota management.
Canada is looking to the Chinese market as the next potential saviour for this dying industry – but this hasn’t happened yet. A long-promised deal to export seal meat to China is now at risk due to concerns over food security and remains unsigned. China needs to do the right thing and follow Russia’s lead and refuse to prop up this cruel industry.

IFAW won’t let up its campaigning until this cruel hunt has been shut down for good. It is cruel and dangerous. The sealers don’t even make a living from it. Both the seals and sealers need protection. It is time that the Canadian Government did the right thing, ended the seal hunt and provided sealers with stable and sustainable alternatives.

Robbie Marsland is director of IFAW-UK


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