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Blood Flows on the Ice Floes
By: Rebecca Aldworth, Int. Fund for Animal Welfare

Mar. 30, 2000

The image is gruesome: A harp seal struggling on the ice, prone before the deadly blow of a hakapik that shatters her skull and spills her blood. It's an image that will be repeated 275,000 times off the east coast of Canada , and inflame an ongoing debate about cruelty, sustainability, cod stocks, and economics. It's the Canadian commercial seal hunt, the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world.

In March, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) will once again be among the observers of the seal hunt on the ice floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence . Witnesses will film and photograph the scene and inspect the remains, consigned to the role of coroner. Ironically, officers of the Canadian Coast Guard?the official watchdog in this orchestrated slaughter?will passively watch nearby as they provide free ice-breaking services to the sealers. That's because the seal hunt is subsidized by the Canadian government. In December, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced that it would retain a seal hunt quota of 275,000 animals despite the best scientific evidence pointing toward an imperiled population. A wealth of evidence, including a new study to be published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Conservation Biology, indicates that Canada 's management plan for the Northwest Atlantic harp seal is threatening the population's long-term stability.

The government's decision to ignore the best available science has groups such as IFAW outraged. "The government repeatedly promised to set the year 2000 quota based on the results of a census of the seal population taken earlier this year," said Rick Smith, Ph.D., national director of IFAW-Canada. "Work on the census was completed in March [1999]. Why have the results not been made public?" The argument that seals are impeding the recovery of fishery-diminished cod stocks fails any scrutiny as a case for the seal hunt. Besides a scientific consensus to the contrary, it is overly simplistic to think that in a complex marine ecosystem containing hundreds of species, the reduction of harp seals would result in the increase of cod. In fact, it might do more harm than good, since harp seals also eat cod predators such as squid and skates.

In 1999, many sealers discovered that the limited market for seal oil and pelts could not support the current seal quota levels. Pelt prices dropped by as much as 50 percent, and sealers refused to return to the ice because their already slim profit margins were almost nonexistent.

With the seal market near collapse and many seals killed solely for their genitalia for sale in Asian markets, and when year after year sealers are videotaped illegally skinning seals alive and killing pups just days or weeks old, the time has come for the Canadian government to stop the seal hunt.