The Canadian Seal Hunt

A sealer wielding a hakapik.

The Canadian Seal Hunt

Canada’s annual commercial seal hunt, which occurs in March and April, is the largest slaughter of marine mammals on the planet.  The government placed the total allowable catch for 2012 at 400,000, despite the fact that their own scientists suggested a smaller quota in the interest of sustainability.

Isn’t it illegal to kill baby seals now?

It is still legal to kill baby seals like this one, who is more than 11 days old and has begun to lose her white fur.

It is still legal to kill baby seals like this one, who is more than 11 days old and has begun to lose her white fur.

No. It’s only illegal to kill baby seals under the age of 11 days old, when they are known as “whitecoats”. At 12 days of age or so, the pups begin to lose their white fur – like the one in the photo to the right, who has shed the white fur on the lower half of her body – and it becomes legal to kill them.  During the first part of the 21st century, 95% of the seals killed during the commercial hunt were “beaters”–seals between 12 days and 3 months old.  By 2007, the percentage was 98%. Sealers prefer to kill these young seals because their pelts fetch the highest prices.1


Do native people depend on the seal hunt to survive?

No.  The Canadian government allows for the slaughter of about 300,000 harp seals every March and April, most of whom are pups less than a few months old.  The Inuit, however, engage in subsistence hunting, and kill fewer than 1,000 harp seals annually, mostly adults.  They also hunt adult ring seals, killing about 10,000 each year.2 All in all, seal pelts taken by native people make up about 3% of the total number in trade.3

The government has been deliberately misleading about Inuit participation in the commercial seal hunt; in 2001, the Department of Foreign Affairs sent out a memo suggesting that they “play the Nunavut Inuit card as leverage” to open the market to seal products.4

It is also important to note that the growing number of international bans against seal products allow for the sale of products created by Inuit hunters, but the Canadian government has done very little to help native people benefit from the exemption.  After all, the fact that only 3% of the hundreds of thousands of seal pelts in trade are produced by the Inuit does not mean that number is insignificant to them. Just after the European Union ban in 2009, Canadian Senator Mac Harb suggested that rather than spend taxpayers’ dollars fighting the ban, the government should put “resources and effort into supporting [Aboriginal] communities and helping them to market their products.”5

As of January 2013, the Canadian government is still fighting the ban.  This should come as no surprise: the Canadian Fur Council also uses the existence of Aboriginal trappers (who bring in just 1% of the industry’s annual income) to discourage criticism of any aspect of fur production, yet they have consistently opposed initiatives to label native fur.

A letter from Arnaituk M. Tarkirk, an Inuit man from Kuujjuak, Quebec:

We have been hearing all about the European vote to ban the importation of seal products from the so-called seal hunt.

I am an Inuk and I would like to say what I think about this.

Peter Ittinuur, Northwest Territory MP, has been saying that this vote will put a lot of Inuit on welfare. This is stupid. The money from the hunt goes to Norway mostly and has nothing to do with the Inuit.

We are skillful hunters who hunt adult animals for food, That is not the same as bashing a pup, which can’t move, over the head.

In fact, if the seal hunt stopped, we would benefit the most. There would be 180,000 more seals left for us to eat when they are a few years older, and also people would not have such an aversion to sealskin products as they have after seeing the way they kill the pups, so craft work made with adult seals would be more popular.

The Hudson Bay Company and the government are just using the Inuit to further their own purposes. I am surprised Peter Ittinuur, whom I know, could allow himself to be used like that. I know people who are against the seal hunt, and they are not against the Inuit.

I am an Inuk, and I oppose the seal hunt.6

The Canadian government maintains that the hunt is humane. Is this true?

A sealer wielding a hakapik.

A sealer wielding a hakapik.

No. Seals are smashed over the head with a tool known as the hakapik (a club with a large metal spike attached) or shot with a rifle. The animals are then dragged across the ice and skinned, often while still alive. Sealers are competing for a limited number of seals in a limited amount of time, so they work quickly to get as many pelts as they can.

A study conducted in 2001 by an independent team of scientists concluded that the recommended regulations for humane hunting and killing were being neither enforced nor followed, and that 42 percent of seals were being skinned alive.7

As of 2008, the Canadian government made an unsuccessful attempt to stave off the 2009 European Union ban on seal products by presenting a “new” set of rules meant to ensure a humane death:

  1. Stun – render seal unconscious
  2. Check – test blinking reflex to ensure seals are irreversibly unconscious
  3. Bleed – cut main artery to ensure seal bleeds out

Numbers 1 and 2 have long been “recommended regulations” of the Canadian government, and as indicated previously, they are neither enforced nor applied by the majority of sealers. Additionally, it is still legal to shoot seals in the water, where none of these three rules can be followed.8

The sealers hit five, six, seven, sometimes up to eight or nine seals in a row and then take their time, going back and skinning and bleeding out the seals. Eventually they get to the first seal they might have hit. That period can last up to six to 10 minutes. It’s terrible. Some of the scenes we have seen are of immense cruelty. Seals screaming, wiggling round in pain and bleeding, and crying out.9

Footage from the 2011 commercial seal hunt:

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Is the seal hunt sustainable?

No, and it’s getting less sustainable as time goes on due to climate change. Over the past 10 years, between half and two-thirds of seal pups have been slaughtered by commercial sealers. The ice cover is rapidly disappearing, and many pups do not learn to swim before the ice melts beneath them.   A 2012 study at Duke University showed that ice cover has declined by 6 percent since 1979, when satellite records of the region began.10

As a result, most seal pups are dying before the hunt even begins.  In 2007, a government study found that there was a nearly 100 percent mortality rate among newborn seals that year.11 In 2010, the mortality rate was estimated to be 70%, and in 2011, 80%.12

The Canadian government claims that the total allowable catch (the number of seals that can be killed) is “determined annually according to the precautionary approach and are informed by the latest science advice (changes in reproductive rates, the effects of climate change, ice conditions, etc.)”, but this is not the case.13 In fact, they ignore the advice of their own scientists: in 2012, Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Mark Hamill suggested a quota of 300,000 to accommodate “decreased reproduction rates and two years of poor ice conditions, which have led to high mortality rates”, but the government set a total allowable catch of 400,000.14 (This is the highest it has been since a quota was implemented in 1971.) And in 2008, the total kill was 217,000, though government scientists estimated the replacement yield for that year (the number of seals that can be killed while still allowing the species to maintain its population) to be 165,000.15,16

Not surprisingly, the 2012 quota was not reached; 70,000 seals were killed.  (In 2011, about 40,000 seals were killed, in 2010, 67,000, and in 2009, 74,000.)

Thousands of seal corpses litter the ice.

Thousands of seal corpses litter the ice.

Aren’t the seals eating the cod that Newfoundland fishers rely on to survive?

No. In fact, young cod makes up only 3 percent of the seals’ diet. The majority of their diet actually consists of fish and squid that prey on young cod; therefore, removing the seals from the equation may actually result in more cod disappearing as predatory fish flourish. The currently low cod population is the result of poor management on the part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Even the Department of Fisheries and Oceans admits that the seal hunt has no positive impact on cod population, explaining that the hunt is “…not an attempt to assist in the recovery of groundfish stocks…Seals eat cod, but seals also eat other fish that prey on cod.”17


Do my taxes support the seal hunt?

Most definitely. Over 20 million dollars in government subsidies were provided to the Canadian sealing industry between 1995 and 2001. And while tracking subsidies to the sealing industry is difficult because the information is not public, $400,000 in government subsidies were granted as recently as 2004 to two sealing companies.18 And in 2012, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador offered to loan $3.6 million to Carino Processing Limited, allowing them to purchase and stockpile the many seal pelts and blubber for which there is no market.  (The company only borrowed $2 million.)19  This was almost five times more than the total value of pelts taken that year, according to provincial statistics.20 In 2013, the government again offered Carino Processing Limited an additional $3.6 million; this time, the loan was accepted in full.21

The total value of Canadian seal products was $34.3-million in 2006; by 2010, it was worth just $1.3-million.22  In 2006, a “top quality” pelt was worth about $105; by 2012, just $27.23

In fact, after the European Union announced a ban on harp seal products in 2009, economist John Livernois found that ending the seal hunt would save Canada a minimum of $6.9 million per year.24  Despite this, the government has appealed to the World Trade Organization to fight the ban at an estimated cost of $10 million in tax dollars.25


How many countries have banned seal hunt products?

As of 2013, 34 countries have banned the importation of commercial seal hunt products.  (An exception is made for products created by indigenous people.) The European Union enacted their ban in 2009, shrinking the global market considerably. In 2012, Russia followed suit.  (90 percent of Canada’s exports of harp seal pelts have gone to Russia in the past.)26  The Swiss National Council also voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning the trade of products from the seal hunt in 2012.27  In 2013, Taiwan enacted a ban on seal hunt products as well, another major blow to the industry. Taiwan was the fourth largest consumer of marine mammals in the world and the third largest in Asia.28  Other countries who have enacted a ban include the United States, Mexico, Belarus, and Kazahkstan.

The sealers are using the meat, though, right? At least nothing goes to waste.

Actually, most of the seal goes to waste.  Some of the penises are sold as aphrodisiacs in Asia, and the oil is sold as a health supplement. The blubber is sometimes collected, but a 2006 study by Memorial University discovered that 80% of it is simply discarded.29 Meanwhile, the meat of the seal rots on the ice, as it is generally considered inedible and unfit for human consumption. On its website, the Canadian government admits that “finding a market for seal meat outside of Newfoundland continues to present a major challenge for the sealing industry.”


What would the sealers do for money if the hunt ended?

“We all go out for the love of it rather than the money, which isn’t there anymore.”–Desmond Hunt, sealer30

The people who work as part of the commercial seal hunt are fishers 95% of the year; seal hunting makes up only a fraction of their annual income.  As recently as 2005, hunters earned, on average, between $1,929 and $2,130; in 2008, they were earning only $11 to $221.31 The number of seal hunters dropped from 5600 in 2006 to just 225 in 2011.32

In fact, due to massive boycotts of Newfoundland and Canadian seafood worldwide, ending the hunt could only increase profits in the area.  For example, two-thirds of Canada’s seafood is imported to the United States.  Since 2006, however, the Humane Society of the United States has run a campaign to boycott Canadian seafood, and as of 2013, they have convinced 750,000 individuals and 5,500 chefs, restaurants, and businesses to participate…

…including heavy hitters Publix (annual sales $24-billion), Whole Foods ($7-billion), WinCo Foods, Lowe’s Foods, Harris Teeter ($3-billion each) and smaller, seafood-driven ones like Legal Sea Foods ($400-million). Sealing creates less than 1% of the value of the sealing provinces’ fishery. Sacrifice 99% for the sake of 1%. Now there’s a business plan! –Jeff White33

Learn more about the boycott and sign the pledge here.


Are there sustainable AND profitable alternatives to the seal hunt?

Yes. With global warming and at the rate that seals are being killed, there won’t be enough left to hunt in a few years. It is far more sustainable to explore ecotourism as an attraction for the area.

Since Canada banned commercial whale hunting in the 1970’s, the whale-watching industry has grown considerably and is now worth more than the seal hunt.

“Years ago, the Canadian government successfully turned its commercial whale hunt into a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry, and there is absolutely no reason the government cannot do the same with seals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS. “By continuing this appalling and inhumane hunt, the government is turning what should be an economic asset — the world’s largest migration of these highly charismatic marine mammals — into a liability. The new economies of the major nations of the world will be built around sustainable and humane practices, not the reckless exploitation of wildlife and natural resources.”34


Last updated May 2013

1. Lavigne, David M. PhD. “Canadian Seal Hunt.” Vancouver Art Gallery. 14 Mar. 2008

2. Canada Shows Its True Colors on the Issue of ColorSea Shepherd News, 15 Sept. 2007

3. Euro MPs call for ban on seal products, EUBusiness, 2006 Sept. 7

4. Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade memo, 2001 June 6

5. Harb, Mac, Senator calls for government leadership and support for Nunavut seal hunters, 2009 Nov. 12, The Office of the Hon. Mac Harb

6. “Inuit Politicians Speak Out as Pawns of the Canadian Government” Sea Shepherd News, 17 Mar. 2006

7. Veterinary Report, Canadian Seal Hunt, Prince Edward Island, Fielder, Joanne B.Sc, BVM+S, MRCVS, et al, Mar. 2001

8. Lavigne, David M. PhD. “Canadian Seal Hunt.” Vancouver Art Gallery. 14 Mar. 2008

9. Clubbing ‘cruelty’ on camera, BBC News, 1998 Apr. 20

10. Harp Seals on Thin Ice After 32 Years of Warming, Duke University, 2012 Jan. 4

11. A Review of Ice Conditions and Potential Impact on Harp Seal Neonatal Mortality in March 2007, Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 2007

12. A Review of Ice Conditions and the Harp Seal Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for 2010, Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 2010

13. Government of Canada, The Canadian seal hunt and the European Union ban, last updated 2011 Nov. 16

14. Scientist wants 25% reduction in harp seal quotaCBC news, 2011 Dec. 26

15. Canada Seal Hunt Quota Set, Despite Disappearing Markets, The Canadian Press, 2012 Mar. 20

16. Lavigne, David M. PhD. “Canadian Seal Hunt.” Vancouver Art Gallery. 2008 Mar. 14

17. FAQs: The Atlantic seal hunt, CBC News, 2009, July 27

18. Ibid.

19. Province gives $3.6-million loan to boost seal hunt,, 2012 Apr. 5

20. McLeod, James, Moving in for the Kill, The Telegram, 2012 Apr. 23

21. Newfoundland government gives another loan to seal processing plant,, 2013 Mar. 27

22. Curry, Bill, Canada forges ahead against EU seal ban, Globe and Mail, 2012 Sept. 25

23. McLeod, James, Moving in for the KillThe Telegram, 2012 Apr. 23

24. Ending Seal Hunt Makes Economic Sense, Prof Says, University of Guelph, 2009, July 27

25. Clark, Campbell, A $10-million fight to save a $1-million hunt, Globe and Mail, 2012 Aug. 23

26. Seal Ban: Russia Planning to Boycott Seal Pelts, IFAW Says,, 2011 Dec. 20

27. Humane Society International Congratulates Swiss National Council for Landslide Vote to Ban Commercial Seal Product Trade,, 2012 May 30

28. New rules clamp down on trade of marine mammals, The China Post, 2013 Jan. 9

29. Lavigne, David M. PhD. “Canadian Seal Hunt.” Vancouver Art Gallery. 14 Mar. 2008

30. Taylor, Bill Seal boats coping with ice crisisThe Star, 21 Apr. 2007

31. Ending Seal Hunt Makes Economic Sense, Prof Says, University of Guelph, 2009, July 27

32. Time to face reality, end the commercial seal hunt,, 2012 Jan. 4

33. White, Jeff The millions Ottawa spends subsidizing the seal hunt, National Post, 21 Apr. 2007

34. About the Canadian Seal Hunt. Humane Society of the United States. 2008

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