Canada's controversial annual hunt for seal pups hasn’t even started yet, but already this year the battle looks like a high-profile one, with singer Paul McCartney and his wife taking to the frigid ice floes off the Atlantic Ocean to protest.
Animal rights activists contend the killing of the doe-eyed baby seals, who are often clubbed to death, pierced with boat hooks or skinned alive, is cruel and unnecessary, but fishermen say they badly need the income.
Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the activists who arranged the trip were misleading the public since white-coated seals have not been hunted since 1987. The seals’ white coats disappear after a few weeks, replaced by a spotted gray and white fur that eventually disappears completely as the seal matures.
“We see this every year. It’s the celebrity of the year. This year’s celebrity has a bit higher candlepower than last year’s but the facts of the hunt are that it’s more humane than ever, it’s growing as an economically viable industry and the herd is in fantastic shape,” he said.
Activists acknowledge that the youngest pups, those that have a furry white coat, aren’t hunted but emphasize that the hunted are still defenseless animals.
“It hasn't learned to swim, can’t eat solid food and won’t be able to reproduce for several more years,” said Chris Cutter, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “The Canadian government classifies these juvenile animals as adult seals. That's the crux of the disagreement. And according to the Canadian government's own statistics, last year 98 percent of the roughly 320,000 seals that were killed were less than three months old.”
McCartney: Hunt history ‘doesn’t make it right’
The McCartneys, dressed in orange thermal jumpsuits, on Thursday traveled in helicopters with a dozen journalists, and members of the Humane Society of the United States and the British-based Respect for Animals.
Hundreds of seals and their fluffy white pups, only days old, were lolling on the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the mothers taking breaks from nursing to bob in the water to fish. The pups will shed their white fur within two weeks, when they become game for fishermen, who get up to $70 each for their pelts and blubber.
The former Beatle acknowledged residents have hunted seals for hundreds of years.
“Well, in our view, that doesn’t make it justifiable,” he said. “Plenty of things have been going on for a long time, like slavery. Just because it’s been going on for a long time doesn’t make it right.”
The McCartneys rolled on the ice with one pup, which gently nipped at Heather Mills McCartney and mewed for its mother. She expressed sadness it and others would likely be killed in a few weeks, their pelts going mostly to Norway, China and Russia.
“They sell the baby seal skins for fashions and fur — that’s what’s so horrific about it,” said Mills McCartney.
The former Beatle implored fishermen to turn instead to ecotourism like whale watching, as communities have done along the Atlantic Coast.
“This is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth,” he said. “It’s very rare that you can come to a beautiful, wild place like this. In our view, it would make more sense to look at ecotourism.”
The Canadian government has yet to decide how many seals can be killed this year, in part because warm weather has meant there are far fewer ice floes where the animals normally give birth. The hunt usually starts at the end of March but even the exact date hasn’t been set due to the weather.
Sealers say the hunt has kept their communities afloat for centuries.
“He’ll go out there and cuddle up to a whitecoat and they look beautiful, you can’t get away from that and it is cruel, you can’t get away from that either, but it’s something we’ve done for 500 years,” said Jack Troake, a 70-year-old sealer. “It’s helped to sustain us. We go to bed with a full stomach, a tight roof over our head. It’s part of our culture, our history.”
Roger Simon, manager of the Gulf of St. Lawrence seal hunt for the federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the seals were not endangered and their population of 5 to 6 million animals was strong.
Canada says large-scale hunting will be allowed to continue until the number of harp seals falls to 3.85 million.
Simon said some 15,000 fishermen, who earn an average of $30,000 to $40,000 a year, can each earn up to $10,000 during the two-week hunt.
“Now, Paul is making, what, $150 million a year?” Simon said. “I’m a lifetime Beatles fan. McCartney comes from a working-class background; you’d think he could maybe relate to the hardships of rural life.”
Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams said Wednesday he was annoyed by McCartney’s visit.
“I find it offensive and insulting that an individual with such international influence would come to our province and pass judgment on individuals who are participating in an industry that sustains their lives,” he said.
Bans and boycotts
The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972 and the European Union banned white baby seal pelts in 1983.
The British government is also considering banning seal goods. Respect for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, which coordinated the McCartneys’ visit, are encouraging a boycott of Canadian seafood.
“I think the McCartneys are two of the most visible people in the world, and with them drawing attention to the fact that this hunt is still going on, this is going to get that message out,” said Rebecca Aldworth, a Newfoundlander who is observing her seventh seal hunt for the Humane Society of the United States.
Aldworth has documented on video the gruesome nature of the hunt, in which the wailing pups are bludgeoned or shot dead, their blood spilling over the ice.
“I routinely witness conscious seals dragged across the ice with boathooks, wounded seals left to choke on their own blood, and seals being skinned alive. The commercial seal hunt is inherently cruel — it is a national disgrace,” she said.
She added that the McCartneys quizzed her about the slaughter, including the economic benefits for fishermen, whose livelihoods were devastated when the Atlantic Ocean cod stocks dried up in the mid-1990s.
Killing furry pups banned
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans insists the seals are not killed before they shed their white fur — typically two to three weeks after they are born.
“All these animal rights groups take people out there to pose with these cute little ones. To suggest that they’re out there clubbing these little white furry ones is just wrong. That’s completely banned,” said Phil Jenkins, a department spokesman.
The government endorses the hunt as a cultural right and announced a management plan in 2003 with a quota of 975,000 seals over three years.
About 325,000 seal pups were killed last year, bringing local fishermen $14.5 million, which they say their families badly need. The start of this spring’s hunt has yet to be announced as mild temperatures have made the ice thin.
Federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said Canada would not terminate the hunt and insisted it is the most regulated mammal harvest in the world.
“I would encourage Mr. McCartney when he comes here to see the effect this is having on the economy and to realize this is sustaining people in their home communities,” Hearn said.
Aboriginal and Inuit hunters begin their own hunt Nov. 15 in Canada’s frozen northern waters, from the Yukon Territories near Alaska through the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic off Newfoundland and Labrador.
The spring commercial hunt starts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and moves to the Front, an arc of the Atlantic Ocean sweeping out 30-40 miles from Newfoundland.