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Frequently Asked Questions

Are seal populations becoming endangered from seal hunting?

The resounding answer is no - especially not in Canada's case. The Northwest Atlantic Harp Seal population is abundant and well conserved, numbering between 6.9 million and 8.2 million - the highest level ever scientifically estimated. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists it as a species of "least concern".

Hunting of this species in Canadian waters is based around a sustainable use model. While many other nations in the world allow killing, or culling of animals for the express purpose of managing seal populations, in Canada management measures are applied to the hunt itself in the form of quotas, based on a precautionary principle.

In definition, the first thing to keep in mind about the precautionary approach is that, in Canada, the harp seal population is viewed as a public resource. For the socio-economic and ecological benefits of hunting seals, the Federal Government has strong incentives to manage seal hunting levels with every intention to keep the population healthy for future generations.

When making recommendations on total allowable catch (TAC), Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientists refer to their population model and a benchmark called "N70" to determine the effects a certain TAC level will have on future population health. "N70" is deemed to be a population level that is 70 percent of the maximum-ever-observed level, and the TAC is set to avoid risk that the seal population will fall below this level due to seal hunting. Natural mortality due to predation, environmental factors or fisheries bycatch is always factored into DFO's modelling to determine annual TAC.

One important thing to remember about "N70" is that, by definition, the benchmark value cannot decrease; it can only increase. Since it is determined by maximum-ever-observed population level, an increasing population will see an increased benchmark for DFO to manage by, but a decreasing one will not lower it.

To date, Canadian federal management measures have been highly successful in conserving the seal populations, as the numbers show.

Are seal hunting practices "inherently inhumane," or cruel - are seals skinned alive?

Employed properly, the hunting methods of Canadian professional sealers are effective and in accordance with established practices of animal welfare, as recommended by the Independent Veterinarians' Working Group (IVWG 2005).

In Canada, professional sealers are required by the Marine Mammal Regulations to follow the IVWG recommended "3-step process" for each seal they kill. The first step requires the animal to be stunned using a regulation weapon, be it a high powered rifle, hakapik or club. As soon as possible after step 1, the sealer is required to "palpate", or feel the animal's skull to ensure that it is completely crushed, meaning the animal has been rendered irreversibly unconscious. Step 3 is bleeding, to ensure that the animal is biologically dead, in addition to being brain dead.

Animal rights campaigners sometimes capture footage of violations to these regulations, and often show edited footage where they cut away without portraying the entire sequence. Despite their suggestions, most sealers do abide by the regulations, and enforcement and training efforts are gradually reducing the number of violations during the hunt to a minimum. Their suggestions that the hunt is "inherently inhumane," have absolutely no basis in peer reviewed, scientific studies.

According to the animal rights mythology, skinning an animal while it's alive saves time or bullets or both. Common sense, on the other hand, should tell us that skinning an animal that is dead is infinitely preferable to skinning one that struggles and bites. Moreover, sealers' associations and their members have always been involved in advocating respect for animal welfare in their practices. An extensive series of sealers' workshops on animal welfare that were put off in Quebec, Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia during the winters of 2008, 2009, and 2010 are just the latest examples of these efforts.

In reality, the inspiration for the IFAW-created myth about "skinning alive" is the observation of a "swimming reflex", portrayed in almost all online videos from NGO's that want to end seal hunting. The following explanation is from "Animal welfare and the harp seal hunt in Atlantic Canada"; by Pierre-Yves Daoust et. al, Can Vet J Vol. 43, September 2002:

"When killed by acute trauma to the brain, seals, like other animals, often undergo a period of tremors or convulsions. These consist of strong lateral movements of the caudal portion of the body ... which have been interpreted by some animal welfare advocates as implying persistence of conscious life."

"The frequent occurrence of strong swimming actions in seals killed by trauma complicates the determination of their death from a distance, for example by videotape. These reflex movements may last considerably longer in seals than in terrestrial animals because of the unique adaptation of their musculature to diving, including a much larger store of oxygen associated with the higher concentration of myoglobin. Moreover, the pattern of this reflex activity can be erratic and does not necessarily decrease gradually in intensity from the time of death. For example, sheep and cattle stunned by nonpenetrative percussion collapsed with signs of tremors, followed by slow hind leg movements that increased in frequency and could develop into vigorous hind leg kicking. Complete immobility immediately following a blow to the head should actually alert the sealer to the possibility that the animal is still conscious, especially if this immobility is accompanied by contraction of the body. This fear-induced 'paralysis' is a typical behaviour of harp seals and hooded seals; other authors have commented on the possibility that such immobile seals might be interpreted as dead by inexperienced sealers and, therefore, might still be conscious when skinning begins."

Are seals that are commercially hunted being used "only for their fur"?

No. In ongoing attempts to trivialize the need for seal products derived from Canada's largest hunt, animal-rights activists continually point to the use of the fur as the only reason for hunting seals. Leaving aside the question about the sustainability and legitimacy of wild-fur and leather production, Canada's oldest and arguably most sustainable industry, the claim that there are no other products utilized from seals hunt is patently false.

The second and indeed most prominent byproduct from commercial seal hunting is seal oil, used primarily as an Omega 3 supplement. This is rendered from the fat of the animals, which is 100% utilized. This fat, or blubber slab that comes attached to the pelt of each animal, represents well over half the useable weight of the animal. In fact, there is between four and five times more fat than meat for most seals that are hunted.

As for meat, the primary 'cut' from a seal comes from the shoulder of the animal, traditionally referred to as "flipper" meat. There is about 500g of very dark, lean but tender meat on each shoulder. This is a cheap and healthy source of meat in a place like Newfoundland, for example, where flippers are bought fresh for prices varying between 1 and 3 dollars each. During 2010, 100% of the flipper meat from animals killed during the commercial seal hunt was utilized either locally in this way, or frozen for export. Other meat products include carcass and loin meat (which is usually taken from older animals that are not typically hunted in abundance).

There are also developments in terms of the most cutting-edge uses. Dr. Andreas Agathos, a Greek cardiovascular surgeon, has spent more than 10 years developing a process for human heart valve replacement - a breakthrough medical procedure for replacing defective heart valves in humans with those from harp seals. Research and initial trials suggest harp seal heart valves for this procedure are far superior to those commonly used from pigs and cows. Dr. Agathos is conducting similar research for the use of harp seal trachea.

Where and how is seal hunting subsidized?

The Canadian government began subsidizing its sealers after the market collapsed in 1983, but only for market and product development, including a meat subsidy (1995-99) to encourage full use of harp seal. With the return to profitability of the industry, these subsidies ceased in 2001.

While there are currently no direct subsidies to ensure harp seals are killed, the case for grey seals could be different in the coming years. Since there is no developed market for grey seals, present government quotas are under-utilized. In June of 2009, Canada's Federal Fisheries Minister announced measures to ensure the targeted removal of grey seals from the Souther Gulf of St. Lawrence, due to the growing population's hindrance to cod fisheries and cod stock recovery there.

Anti-seal hunt NGO's like to make the argument that the seal hunt costs Canada more than it makes. Industry players, however, view this as totally insincere - how can these groups suggest that hunting seals is "not valuable enough", when they spend most of their efforts trying to destroy the markets for seal products?

What would be the costs to Canada if the hunt for harp seals had to be subsidized along the lines of the cull, as Canada is about to do with grey seals?

Here are some other instances of seal hunt subsidizing:

The Norwegian government subsidizes its sealers "to ensure sound regulation of seal stocks and to maintain traditional hunting skills so that seal populations can continue to be appropriately regulated." However, the government is also engaged in efforts to develop markets for seal products, with the aim of making the industry independent.

Greenland's Home Rule government introduced subsidies for professional sealers after the European whitecoat ban collapsed the market in 1983. In 2006, it paid out 22.5 million kroner to help fund the hunters' equipment.

Between 2001 and 2007, the European Union matched funding from the Governments of Norway, Sweden and Finland for a seal resource development project entitled, "Seals: Our Common Resource". The aim of the project was to improve the image of seals among fishermen, as an animal to be respected, conserved and used, rather than simply controlled as pests. Total contributions totalled some 1 million Euros, although the project was dealt a blow when the EU passed a ban on commercial seal products in 2009. Now it is only legal to hunt seals on a non-profit basis, as pests.

How important is sealing to Canada's economy?

At the national level, the economic contribution of sealing is small, yet it represents a significant source of income for over 6,000 individuals and their families in remote coastal communities at a time of year when employment opportunities are extremely limited. In some communities over 25% of households take part in the hunt, and among those people the hunt can account for 25-35% of their annual income.

Between 2006-2008, sealing activity yielded $53 million (CAD) in direct "landed value" to sealers based in the provinces of Quebec (QC) and Newfoundland and Labrador (NL). The total value during this period to the economies of QC and NL in product production and trade was over $120 million.

Exports of pelts in 2006 were valued at $16,395,000, while exports of meat and oil were valued at $1,588,000.

Are harp seals hindering the recovery of cod and other fish stocks?

While overfishing by humans was undoubtedly a factor in the collapse of Northwest Atlantic cod stocks, a wide range of factors may be responsible for their slow recovery thus far. Whatever the cause or causes, the Canadian government is adamant that commercial sealing quotas are set solely based on how best to conserve seal stocks, and are not influenced by any attempt to help groundfish stocks recover.

As for how many fish seals actually consume, there is also a lot of uncertainty, except for one thing: they consume a lot!

Consider these statistics:

1 - Canada's harp seal and grey seal populations alone consume 8.6 million tonnes of fish annually. By comparison Canada's annual fishery (all coasts) yields less than 1 million tonnes.

2 - Consumption estimates indicate that harp and grey seals consume approximately 350,000 tonnes of cod per year. By comparison, Canada's total annual Atlantic codfish quota for fishing is currently 22,973 tonnes.

3 - While the World Conservation Union's Redlist of Threatened Species lists grey and harp seals as species of "least concern," the Atlantic cod is listed as "vulnerable".

What is a seal "pup" and are they commercially harvested?

English-language terms used for seals are more commonly associated with other animals: "bulls" for adult males, "cows" for adult females, and "pups" for the very young. There are also a variety of terms used for juveniles.

"Pup" is an abbreviation of "puppy" dog, derived from the Middle French word poupÈe, meaning a doll or puppet.

According to general usage, words such as "pup", "calf", "kid", "foal" or "kit" are not age-specific. Rather, they describe young which are still dependent on their mothers for survival. However, since many larger mammals have periods of dependency that extend well beyond weaning from the mother's milk, a misconception has arisen that a "pup" or its equivalent must be several months old or more.

In the case of seals, however, dependency ends with weaning, and weaning does not take long. Hooded seals are weaned on average after just 8 days, and sometimes as short as 4 days, the shortest period of any mammal, during which they double in size from about 24 kg to 47 kg.

But hooded seals are still not commercially harvested until they lose their "blueback" coats at 14 months old. The most relevant example in determining whether "pups" are commercially harvested is the harp seal.

Harp seal pups are weaned at about 12 days, and about two days later start to lose their white coats.

"Whitecoat" harp seal pups were an important component of commercial sealing. Within the Canadian hunt the killing of whitecoats was generally phased out following a 1983 ban by the European Union on their products and in 1987 the practice was banned altogether in Canada.