By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
TORONTO, April 3 -- Hunters and animal rights activists face off on the ice this week as Canada's annual seal hunt begins, but a succession of unusually warm winters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence already has drowned thousands of the animals.
Canadian authorities reduced the quotas on the harp seal hunt by about 20 percent after overflights showed large numbers of seal pups were lost to thin and melting ice in the lower part of the gulf, off Prince Edward Island.
"We don't know if it's weather or climate. But we have seen a trend in the ice conditions in the last four or five years," said Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "The pups can't swim for very long. They need stable ice. If the ice deteriorates underneath them, they drown."
Rebecca Aldworth, an activist for the Humane Society of the United States, flew over the area this week. "We should have seen vast ice fields, but we saw only a few floating ice pans," she said. "We should have seen thousands of seal pups, but we just saw a few."
Jenkins said only two of the usual fleet of about 40 seal-hunting boats ventured out in the southern gulf when the hunting season opened Monday. "There weren't many seals there to hunt," he said.
In the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the Labrador Sea, ice conditions were normal and the hunt was to start Wednesday with the now traditional confrontation between hunters and people who oppose the hunt.
Canada set a quota of 270,000 seals for the hunt this year, down by 65,000 from the previous year. The hunters, most of them commercial fishermen from the seaside towns and villages of eastern Canada, get about $90 per seal for the fur and seal oil.
"All we are looking for is to go to bed with a full stomach and a tight roof over us," said Jack Troake, 71, a fisherman and seal hunter in the town of Twillingate, on Newfoundland's northern coast. He said he has been hunting since he first went out with his father in 1950. "We're coastal people, just hanging on by our fingertips. We need the seal hunt to make ends meet."
The economically depressed fishing towns depend on the spring seal harvest to pay bills and buy gear to start the crab and shrimp season, about all they have left since the cod have disappeared, said Jim Winter, co-founder of the Canadian Sealers Association.
"The real bottom line is that killing seals is no different than killing pigs or cows or lambs to sustain your family," Winter said from St. John's. "We are using the same methods they do in abattoirs" -- slaughterhouses -- he said. Most hunters shoot the seals, but some kill the animals with clubs. "Because this is out in the open, it's the Bambi Syndrome run amok."
Aldworth, who has been watching seal hunts for the Humane Society and other organizations for nine years, contends that "year after year, people continue to see unacceptable forms of cruelty."
"This is a hunt of baby seals for their fur," she said. "Most of them are under three months, and many of them are under one month old. They are killed to produce fashion items."
The United States banned imports of seal products in 1972, and several European countries have moved to impose bans or restrictions. The Humane Society has promoted a boycott of Canadian seafood products to try to end the seal hunt. Jenkins, of Canada's fisheries department, argues that those moves are a product of emotionalism.
"We've brought this seal herd back from 1.8 million in the 1970s to 5.5 million in 2004," he said from Newfoundland, where he was to monitor the hunt. "We look at this as a conservation success story. We feel very strongly we are going to keep this herd in abundance, and keep it healthy."
Jenkins said the loss of so many seal pups this year in the lower Gulf of St. Lawrence was not unexpected, because of warmer weather. "Our scientists say that the 5.5 million population can sustain this kind of event, but it has to be managed" with the lower hunting quotas, he said.
Aldworth said the milder winters provide another argument for protecting the seals. " "We're going to see far higher levels of mortality," she said. "We can't control global warming in the short term, but we can control the hunt by ending it."