Cablegate: Magdalen Islands Seal Hunt Controversy Continues

Published: Thu 25 Mar 2004 07:07 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. Summary: CG visited the ice floes off the coast of the
Magdalen Islands March 10 to observe the harp seal population on
its annual migration from Greenland. As many as 350,000 young
seals may be culled in the hunt this year, although this year's
higher quota may well not be reached. Opponents of the hunt
decry it for being cruel and unsustainable. Federal and
provincial authorities, fully aware of the public relations
problem surrounding the hunt, defend its conduct and claim it is
the most strictly controlled and supervised hunt in the world.
They are investigating alternative methods of killing the seal
other than with clubs and rifles that can leave seals wounded.
Harp seals number over 5 million, three times what they were in
the 1970s. Despite the ban of seal products in the U.S. and
Europe, the industry earned about $15 million last year,
primarily from pelt sales to Norway, Denmark and China. End
2. The commercial hunt for harp seals off the Magdalen Islands,
in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, began March 24 - by no coincidence
the same day as a campaign against the hunt by the international
animal welfare movement. Madelinots who live on the
archipelago, and for whom the seal hunt is a way of life and
source of income, have equally strong sentiments in favor of the
3. The ice field where the Greenland harp seals breed and
whelp, situated an hour's helicopter ride from the "Maggies," is
the only place in the world where it is possible to land and
observe the seals before the hunt or to monitor sealing
activity. (Note: the Atlantic off Newfoundland, where the
majority of the harp seal population congregate, is too rough to
permit observation). Around 200 people visited the fragile ice
floe during the first half of March this year, prior to the
start of the hunt that goes into May, when the sea ice breaks
up. CG traveled onto the ice via helicopter March 10 to observe
the hundreds of thousands of seals that travel 2,000 miles from
the Arctic to give birth and mate before returning to Greenland.
Madelinot sealers, temporarily acting as ecotourist guides,
were there to explain the hunt and the lifecycle of the seal. A
mass of seals and their white-coated pups were visible on the
ice floe. As many as 350,000 young harp seals may not make the
return voyage.
4. This year the Gulf of St Lawrence is 40 percent covered with
ice - some years it is 80 percent. Storms have moved the ice
field against the Prince Edward Island coast. The strength of
the sea ice depends on rain that refreezes and makes it more
solid. If the ice is too thin, seal pups, lacking enough
blubber, fall off the ice floes and can drown. There were
reports of mass drownings last year. Six of the last nine
winters have been unusually mild. This year, the ice is light
but quite solid.
5. An exhaustive census in 1999 counted 5.2 million
Greenland/harp seals, up from 2 million in the 1970's. In 1983,
the Canadian government banned the killing of newborn
"whitecoat" seal pups that are still being nursed by their
mothers. It is still permitted to kill young seals that have
molted, becoming grey at around two weeks of age, and have gone
from 24 to 80 lbs. Hunters do kill adult seals, but reports
from the Canadian government show that the vast majority of
seals killed in the hunt are "beaters" - young seals from 12
days to 12 months old, that thrash the water as they swim. In
the 2002-2003 hunt, 96.6 percent were beaters under 3 months of
age. The number of seals killed last year was reported to be
286,238 - more than at any other time in the past 35 years. The
new quota announced in 2003 would allow 975,000 harp seals to be
'harvested' over 3 years, through 2005.
6. The actual hunt is not open to outside observers (it is
pretty bloody and gruesome to watch), except for Federal and
provincial inspectors in boats. Non-governmental opponents
arrive unannounced on the ice or from the air; they submit video
evidence of probable violations to Canada's Department of
Fisheries and Oceans, but they claim no charges have been placed
to date. Protesters have been trying to stop the seal hunt
since 1969, leading to a ban by the EEC on all import of harp
seal products and to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act
(MMPA). Opponents denounce the hunt as cruel and unsustainable.
Because of its remoteness, in areas with little oversight, they
claim the hunt continues to break the rules while sanitizing the
activity with phrases such as "Seal fishery" and "harvest."
Anti-sealers accuse hunters of skinning conscious seals (over 40
percent of the time), dragging live seals across the ice with
hooks, and shooting and wounding seals.
7. While I was not able to witness the hunt first hand, I spoke
to a number of hunters and federal fisheries officials who
monitor the hunt, and to local environmental activists. Their
views were not widely differing - the seal hunt is accepted as a
part of life on the islands. The seal museum presents both
sides of the debate, however; all my local interlocutors clearly
knew they have a tremendous public relations problem with the
hunt. Local inspectors with whom I spoke insisted the hunt is
subject to strict controls and is well supervised.
8. Roger Simon, Area Director of Fisheries and Oceans Canada,
who has been inspecting the hunt for over 20 years, flatly
denied charges of cruelty. He said sealers are required by law
to perform a simple blink reflex test to determine if the seal
is dead before skinning it. He acknowledged that as in other
creatures, there are some involuntary muscle spasms after death
that could explain movement. We discussed alternative methods
of killing the seals humanely, including ballistics and lethal
injections. Simon said that a shot against the head, as in an
abbatoir, would not be a good alternative because the thin
cranium of the young seal would allow a bullet passed through,
merely wounding. He asserted that the only sure way to kill a
seal was the traditional method of a well-aimed blow to the
front of the skull.
9. In refuting the charge of hunters skinning seals while still
conscious, Simon claimed that if a hunter tried to skin a moving
animal, he would damage and destroy the value of the pelt. He
conceded that there is still some muscle reflex observable in
dead seals. Simon said only a certain caliber of ammunition is
authorized to promote a clean kill, but he acknowledged there is
some degree of wounding. Tests are going on with veterinarians
who work in abbatoirs to find more acceptable methods.
10. All of those close to the resource with whom I spoke
insisted that the hunt is conducted in a clean and professional
manner; they underscore it is the most closely monitored hunt in
the world. They note that the seals coming to whelp from
Greenland are growing in number, to the point that they are
threatening the fish stocks. The federal government controls
the seals while they are in the water; the provincial government
controls them once they are dead. Under provincial law, the
complete and precise use of every seal killed must be accounted
for. Hunters must be licensed. Before getting a permit,
commercial sealers must do 20 hours training and must work under
a professional sealer for two years.
11. Donald Leblanc, who has spent all his life sealing and
currently is the main trainer on humane techniques of killing,
bleeding and skinning seals for people seeking permits,
described the strict standards of the 20-hour course, including
mandatory classes by veterinarians, pelt classers, and
academics. Leblanc admitted there were some bad practices but
said these were the exception and not condoned. Most hunters
know the habits and respect the marine mammals, he said.
12. Forty years ago, people on the Islands ate seals to
survive, but the context has now changed. Both Simon and
Leblanc told CG that quality has become essential: The
collection of seal pelts "is more artisanal than industrial."
The commercial seal hunt is for pelts and oil. Pelts are worth
from C$40-70 if they are perfect, and include the tail. The
seal's blubber, attached to the pelt, yields 40 lbs of oil that
can produce 500 anti-cholesterol health capsules (Omega 3).
There is not much market for the meat. Most seal carcasses are
left on the ice where they are consumed by gulls, fish and sea
lice. The industry earned about $15 million last year,
primarily from pelt sales to Norway, Denmark and China.
13. Regarding sustainability, anti-sealers point out marine
mammals have proved vulnerable in the past. Walrus herds used
to be abundant off the Islands: British navigator Peter
Haldimand noted in his diary in 1765 that about 100,000 walruses
could be seen along the shores of Grande Entree Island. Abusive
commercial slaughter meant that by 1799, the walrus had
completely disappeared from the Islands. Madelinots point out
that harp seals are the second most abundant seal in the world,
however. Hunters say that the adult seal eats around 5 pounds
of fish a day, taking a bite of the best part and leaving the
rest. It is clear that for the Madelinots, keeping the seal
population in check is an advantage to the annual hunt.
14. The GOC is clearly aware of the impact of the hunt on fish
stocks, especially cod. Federal inspector Simon told CG that
the Canadian Government has responded to the controversy on
killing young harp seals not by prohibiting the traditional hunt
but by implementing strategies for the long-term management of
the seal population. For today's hunter on the Magdalen
Islands, the seal hunt is an important part of making a living
following the 1990 moratorium on cod fishing and the drop of
fish stocks (e.g. 85 percent drop in ocean perch stocks). The
complete moratorium on cod fishing last year means that lobster
fishing has become one of the Islands' main resources (5 million
pounds), as well as snow crabs, eels, mackerel and herrings.
These catches do not compare to the $15,000 a sealer can make
during the few weeks of the spring hunt. The islanders were
quick to assure CG they were not getting rich through sealing,
however, and they point out that the quotas are rarely achieved
- less than half is common.
15. Comment: The practice of killing young seals with clubs
remains a subject of international concern and U.S.
congressional interest. In my travels to Nunavut and to the
Magdalen Islands, the subject of opening the U.S. market to
Canadian sealing products, currently prohibited under the Marine
Mammal Protection Act, is a constant refrain. The beauty of the
Islands and the friendliness of its people not withstanding,
Madelinots can be sure to have another media battle brewing
while the controversial killing of young harp seals continues,
even if it now involves grey seals, and not the fluffy
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