A few years ago, I spent two days on the ice floes of Newfoundland watching baby seals and their mothers. Snow white, with big trusting eyes, the pups were the picture of innocence, and it was with growing horror I realized that many of these same creatures would later be clubbed, shot and dragged - some still conscious - over the ice floes when the annual commercial seal hunt took place a month later. Now the slaughter is set to begin again, despite lack of demand for seal fur, overwhelming global condemnation and diminishing economic rationale. I ask, what's the point?
The annual Canadian commercial seal hunt is the largest slaughter of marine mammals on earth, claiming the lives of more than two million seals since 2002 alone. Yet, in recent years growing backlash has greatly reduced the export market. Thirty-five countries now ban some or all trade in commercial seal products, with markets closed in the United States, Mexico, the European Union and Russia. As a result, the hunt's value has diminished, as has the number of Canadians engaging in the practice.
There are currently only a few hundred active sealers - down from an estimated 6,000 in 2006 - and in 2014 the total value of commercial seal products coming out of Canada was just $500,000. Yet, according to recently obtained government documents, the hunt is costing Canadians $2 million more than that in annual tax expenditures. This includes $1 million for icebreakers, $475,000 for helicopters and $375,000 in overtime for those monitoring the hunt. It does not take into account the millions more in marketing dollars and subsidies the Canadian and local governments devote to keeping the hunt going.
Canada regularly pays companies to buy up pelts, and the country spent an estimated $10 million fighting a losing battle against the E.U. ban on seal products. There's also the incalculable damage to Canada's reputation, along with potential economic losses from unrealized trade deals with partners opposed to the hunt.
It's clear that supporting what may once have been a critical economic activity is simply no longer vital or viable. So why is the Canadian government propping up a dying industry? Simply put, political expediency - but caving to the demands of a few fisheries associations doesn't do any good for the millions of taxpayers who unknowingly abet this cruel economic boondoggle. Surely those funds could be better used buttressing social service programs or the crucial search and rescue services that have been the targets of significant cutbacks over the years.It's time for the government to encourage local communities to find sustainable new ways to derive economic value from their most iconic wildlife.
In his new book The Humane Economy, The Humane Society of the United States president and CEO Wayne Pacelle points out that industries that compromise animal welfare can cost society many times the revenue generated. In the 19th century, a number of coastal communities hunted whales. However as whaling ended, whale watching was developed, generating new and more lucrative income for these towns.
The same can happen here. A 2010 poll found that half of Newfoundland sealers actually support a plan that would buy back their licenses, compensate them for their losses and develop new economic alternatives in the communities involved. Humane Society International, which has a strong presence in Canada devoted in part to ending the slaughter, supports this plan. And, with major export markets closing and Canadian taxpayers growing tired of footing the bill, there is little alternative for the major stakeholders. To be certain, the opposition isn't going anywhere.
The HSUS and HSI will continue to expose the cruelty of the commercial seal hunt for the world to see. Concerned chefs and food retailers will continue to avoid Canadian seafood as a means of pressuring the industry to stop the slaughter. Nations all around the world will continue to institute bans against the import of seal products. And the vast majority of Canadian people will continue to oppose the hunt, as they have done for many years.
Prime Minister Trudeau has an opportunity here to make history by doing as they, and many sealers, want by supporting a seal industry buyout. The world would applaud this action; it would restore Canada's reputation as a nation that cares for its wildlife, and it would bring to an end a needless economic drain on taxpayers. If done right, it could also revitalize local communities through enhanced eco-tourism. Visitors will appreciate more opportunities to watch the seals at play - as I did, but without the terrible knowledge of what's to come.