What is the status of the seal hunt that used to be held each winter in Newfoundland, Canada?

What is the status of the seal hunt that used to be held each winter in Newfoundland, Canada? I thought it had ended but then I heard it had started up again.

—Mary, via e-mail

The first European explorers who landed on the eastern coast of Canada in the late 17th century estimated the local seal population to number around 30 million. With such an abundance of wildlife and a huge demand around the world at the time for seal oil and pelts, the hunt was on almost immediately. But biologists estimate that by the early 1970s, when the Canadian government began to regulate marine mammal hunting, only about two million seals were left in the area.

Not until the 1980s did inhumane seal hunting practices, including clubbing and shooting of baby “whitecoat” harp seals, begin to foment public outrage. As a result, the European Parliament banned the import of baby harp seal pelts from Canada in 1984. Meanwhile, the Britain-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) called for a boycott of all Canadian seafood that same year. These actions forced the Canadian government to ban vessel-based seal hunting in Canadian waters (although land-based seal hunting was still allowed), significantly reducing the numbers of seals killed over the following few years. This short-term fix allowed seal numbers off Canada’s Atlantic coast to rebound to about five million.

But more recently, blaming seals for dwindling populations of fish on its Atlantic coast, Canada has allowed more kills as well as a resumption of vessel-based hunting. These days hunters are allowed to take over 300,000 pelts each year, most of which are sold in Europe. Canada also reportedly subsidizes the seal hunt some $20 million per year, according to the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment, in order to help the fishermen who rely on seal hunting for a portion of their incomes.

Meanwhile, animal advocates counter that mismanagement of fisheries by Canada’s government is really to blame for dwindling fish, not hungry seals. Last year Mhairi Dunlop of Greenpeace told Environmental News Service: “The Canadian government has a long history of mismanaging marine ecosystems, yielding to the short-term interests of the fishing and sealing industries at great cost to jobs and marine life.”

The Protect Seals Network, an international coalition of some three-dozen groups including Greenpeace, Canada’s Nova Scotia and Vancouver humane societies and others, is calling for a new boycott of Canadian seafood. As one of its many actions, the group recently placed a full-page ad in the Christian Science Monitor urging readers to join the boycott until Canada’s government ends the seal hunt.

According to the website harpseals.org, which monitors seal hunting worldwide and advocates for eliminating the hunt, Canada is set to release a new three-year quota for seal pelts before the beginning of the new season to begin in March. Environmental and animal groups are hoping that officials there will bow to pressure and reduce the total allowable catch of seals from the record numbers allowed during the previous three-year period ending in 2005.

CONTACTS: IFAW, www.ifaw.org; Harpseals.org, www.harpseals.org; Protect Seals Network, www.hsus.org/marine_mammals/protect_seals/the_protect_seals_network.html.