A Few Words on Seals and Sealing

My grandmother owned a full length shiny black sealskin coat. I know this because it was passed down to me in the 70’s. Luxuriously soft and silky, I wore it for awhile during my hippie days, and don’t remember now, how I felt then, about the fact that the pelts were stripped from the body of some beautiful marine mammals, perhaps while they were still alive. I was a most unenlightened hippie. 

I didn't know, for example, that most of the world’s seal hunting occurs here in Canada (northwest Atlantic region) and involves the Harp Seal

Note: this is an intensively complex controversial subject that involves many players.

Hunting is regulated by DFO, The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who set quotas based on their studies of the seal population, and enforce “Seal Protection Regulations” to ensure humane killing and reduce competitive slaughter. DFO conducts studies and works hard to protect the species. They post a Q&A page here.

Harp seals can be commercially hunted once they are 12-14 days old--at this point they molt their downy white newborn fur and are abandoned by their mothers. The killing of whitecoats and bluebacks (newborns) has been banned since 1987. Most sealing is done on The Front, the ice flows east of Newfoundland, during March and April (though the season is open from mid-November to mid-May). According to Liberation BC the total allowable catch for 2012 was 400,000. 

Kill methods are also regulated by DFO--seals can only be dispatched using high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks--a heavy club with hammer head and metal hook on the end.  As brutal as this sounds, the hakapik (a Norwegian harvesting weapon) seems the most humane method as the seal’s skull is crushed with a quick blow to the forehead. This means the seal is not bled or skinned alive. Hunters are supposed to render the animal unconscious, check that it is dead, and then cut the main artery to bleed the seal out--it's meant to be quick.

Think about how the meat in grocery stores arrives there and compare. And, for the Canadian Sealers Association side of the issue see Myths and Realities.

To further complicate matters, global warming is now threatening the harp seal population. Females come out of the water to give birth on the ice floes in late winter, but warmer temperatures are causing the ice to break up before the pups even learn to swim. Many drown. In fact, in 2007, one government study posted a 100% mortality rate on newborns. And in 2011, a year in which 70,000 seals were harvested, the mortality rate was 80%. DFO must take all of this into consideration when they set their quotas.

And, as always, times are changing. Demand for Canada’s harvested pelts has diminished since the European Union (EU) banned importation of seal products in 2009, and to date, 34 countries have banned importation of seal hunt products not created by Indigenous Peoples. Liberation BC

Harbour Seals

These lovely creatures--Harbour Seals--are not commercially hunted. Since 1970, they’ve been protected under the Federal Fisheries Act, along with northern elephant seals, and Steller and California sea lions, so their population is steadily increasing.

Pinnipeds are acrobatic in the water, but movement on land is difficult--they wriggle over the rocks like giant slugs. In the photo below, you can see scars, likely the result of dragging the weighty body over sharp rocks. A party of them haulout on the rocks during low tide. There are sometimes kerfuffles over personal space if someone gets too close, and I am almost certain they post a sentry. One always appears to be looking up at the land, and when I reach a certain point, he or she squooshes into the water, an act which inspires a chaos of squooshing and splashing, as the entire party takes cover. Then I am all apologies for having disturbed their slumber. Ironically, their enemy here is not man, but Orcinus Orca, the killer whale, who often hunts them in the early morning hours.

I am so grateful to have had this time to share this rock with these Harbour Seals. They are beautiful creatures, so vital and curious, and I will miss them when I'm gone, but take comfort in the fact that they will remain.

I have no idea whatever happened to my grandmother's coat, and though I see the many sides of sealing, personally, the only seal hunting I will ever do is with my camera. 


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