Animal Welfare in Canada

Through history, a variety of clubs, hooks and firearms have been used to catch seals. Nowadays, what tools can be used are stipulated by the Marine Mammal Regulations, whereby sealers can only dispatch marine mammals in a manner designed to do so quickly. Seals may be killed only by the use of high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs and hakapiks.

90% of sealers on the ice floes of the Front (east of Newfoundland), where the majority of the hunt occurs, use firearms. Sealers in the Magdelen Islands (Gulf of St. Lawrence) and on Quebec's Lower North Shore traditionally use clubs or hakapiks.

A regulation club must be round, made of hardwood, and measure between 60 cm and 1 m in length. For at least half its length, beginning at one end, it must measure between 5 cm and 7.6 cm in diameter.

A hakapik is an efficient tool designed to kill the animal quickly and humanely. They were adopted in Canada in 1976. A regulation Canadian hakapik consists of a metal ferrule that weighs at least 340 gm with a slightly bent spike not more than 14 cm in length on one side of the ferrule and a blunt projection not more than 1.3 cm in length on the opposite side of the ferrule and that is attached to a wooden handle that measures not less than 105 cm and not more than 153 cm in length and not less than 3 cm and not more than 5.1 cm in diameter.

When using a club or hakapik, the Marine Mammal Regulations require a sealer to strike the seal on the forehead until it is crushed and manually check the skull, or, since 2003, administer a blinking eye reflex test, to confirm that the seal is dead, before proceeding to strike another seal.

Clubs and hakapiks are less used these days since the cessation of the hunting of pups, and sealers now often rely on shooting seals with a rifle from their vessel.

Regulation firearms fall into two categories: (1) a rifle and bullets that are not full metal-jacketed that produce a muzzle velocity of not less than 1,800 feet per second and a muzzle energy of not less than 1,100 foot pounds; or (2) a shotgun of not less than 20 gauge and rifled slugs.

If a sealer is using a firearm, either the person who shoots it or retrieves it is required to administer a blinking reflex test as soon as possible after it is shot to confirm that it is dead. No person may start to skin or bleed a seal until a blinking reflex test has been administered, confirming that it is dead.

Every person who administers a blinking reflex test on a seal that elicits a blink shall immediately strike the seal with a club or hakapik on the forehead until its skull has been crushed, and the blinking reflex test confirms that the seal is dead.

Ice conditions, which can vary considerably, will also affect the decision to use a club or hakapik, or a rifle. Poor ice formation, with a large number of small ice floes, lends itself to shooting rather than striking.

Licensing policy requires a commercial sealer to work under an experienced sealer for two years to obtain a professional licence. Sealers are also encouraged to take a training course on proper hunting techniques, product preparation and handling. Personal use sealers must have a hunter's capability certificate or big game licence and attend mandatory training sessions before a licence can be issued.

In accordance with the Marine Mammal Regulations, sealers must land the entire carcass or pelt to ensure the fullest possible commercial use of the animal and to prevent seals from being harvested strictly for their organs.

Representatives of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association observed the Canadian harp seal hunt in 2002 and concluded that, of the animals studied, 98% were killed in an acceptably humane manner, which compared very favourably to the animal welfare standard required in abattoirs in North America and the European Union.

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Dr. H.C. Roswell, DVM, Dept. of Pathology, University of Ottawa and founder of the Canadian Council on Animal Care.
I have examined the craniums of thousands of seal pups and I have never observed one that did not have massive hemorrhage in the brain, which is an indication that the animal was rendered unconscious and therefore incapable of feeling any pain." And, "in each case the has been massive hemorrhage into the brain resulting in immediate unconsciousness. Death was rapid and humane. The choice of killing method must favour the seal and not the observer. This animal's death, any more than can the death of domestic animals in the slaughterhouse where the public is forbidden and where television cameras do not wish to visit.

Dr. Keith Ronald, Dean of the College of Biological Science, University of Guelph
From a total of 509 animals examined at the time, there was reported to be only one other case of the animal not being rendered unconscious. This appears to be a fantastically high average of humane killing.