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Mac Harb and the European Union Aim Deathblows at the Canadian Seal Hunt

March 25, 2009

Canada’s annual seal hunt is just getting underway, amid rain and fog and blowing snow. The coldest winds of all, however, seem to be blowing from the general direction of Brussels, as the European Parliament prepares to vote on a near-total ban on the importation of seal products from Canada and other countries.

Seal hunting, of course, has been drawing widespread fire since the mid-1960s. As a fascinating and relatively balanced older Canadian Geographic article on the seal hunt explains:

“…scenes of three-week-old whitecoat seals being clubbed to death in a slurry of blood and ice prompted a public outcry in Canada, the United States and Europe…The whitecoat, with its wide lustrous eyes and fluffy white fur, became an animal-rights symbol. Its ‘murderers’ were thoroughly demonized.”

What was then the European Community “banned products derived from seal pups” in 1983. Canada partly capitulated to the pressure in 1987 by forbidding the killing of whitecoats, or very young seals. The annual hunt for older seals has undergone tremendous regulation and scrutiny in the years since, and a 2002 paper by a team of veterinarians concluded that “a large majority of seals taken during this hunt… are killed in an acceptably humane manner”. Meanwhile, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the harp seal as a species of “least concern”, whose numbers have increased over the last few decades. Unfortunately, facts like this seem to be no match for images of baby seals going under the club, which organisations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) still use as a centrepiece of their campaigning. And now the EU, once the principal market for Canadian seal fur, is about to vote on banning our seal products almost entirely. The United States has had a similar ban since 1972.

Our Fisheries Minster, Gail Shea, is understandably threatening to retaliate through the WTO if the European ban goes ahead. However, Liberal Senator Mac Harb makes a strong case in Embassy magazine that the seal hunt is so economically marginal, and so damaging to Canada’s image, that we ought to simply shut it down. A cold-blooded calculation of Canadian interests would probably support this argument. Nevertheless, my instincts at the moment are in the direction of what the British call bloody-mindedness. I simply loathe the idea of completing our gradual surrender to a movement that never really had anything going for it beyond the cuteness of whitecoats and simple, contemptible squeamishness over the sight of gore.

European public opinion was perhaps the biggest single factor that led Canada to ban the hunting of whitecoats and tightly regulate the killing of older seals. If our “friends” in Brussels are going to impose a comprehensive ban anyway, we might as well ease the regulations and go back to killing a modest, sustainable number of whitecoats. Surely we can find non-European buyers for the resulting garments and other products, particularly in Asia. Or better yet… wouldn’t someone you love look good in a sealskin coat?


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9 Comments leave one →
  1. dawn davies permalink
    April 2, 2009 8:48 am

    cuteness has nothing to do with it. killing an animal just for fur is unacceptable, and in this inhumane way. How any civilised person can do this is unbeleivable. they should get the same punishment themselves. and anyone who tries to excuse their behaviour is as sick as they are

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 2, 2009 11:26 am

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re personally able to factor out cuteness when considering these matters, but I think it’s hard to argue that the seal hunt would be equally unpopular with the European public if young seals were less photogenic.

      The professional veterinarians who wrote the report I referred to in the original post did not consider the seal hunt to be especially inhumane, although I suppose this will always be a matter of opinion to some degree.

      It’s probably obvious that I don’t agree with your assertion that it’s unacceptable to kill animals “just for fur” (other parts of the seal do get used, but I won’t deny that fur is the major product), but I can respect your philosophical position on the subject. I hope you can also respect mine, which is that humans are the only animals whose lives have any real intrinsic importance. In my opinion, the beauty and utility of sealskin coats is easily worth the messy demise of their original owners, as long as we don’t kill so many that their survival as a species is threatened.

  2. March 26, 2009 1:56 pm

    Hi Corwin,

    Have you read the op-ed piece written by Terry Glavin on his subject some time ago in the Tyee?
    It reflects some of what you’ve said and opposes to the “cuteness” lovers the argument that the canadian seal hunt is in fact quite a sustainable practice. It would be interesting to talk more about unsustainable fishing practices in the northern Atlantic (both by Canadian and European fisheries) than to harp on about the seals but advocating for the cod or the monkfish is certainly a lot less aesthetic then for the cute seals.. So, the argument about looking at the interests of Canada in this affair also holds up but I agree with canworldjon, it takes more courage to go about changing international attitudes. Let’s wish for some courageous politicians and public speakers!

    • March 26, 2009 7:46 pm

      For better or worse, it seems to me that cuteness and sustainability are two separate issues. Glavin does make a good point that a lot of environmentalists were distracted by the seals when maybe they should have been focusing on the last of the cod. But — we’re in a bit of an awkward position here, as sellers claiming our rights are being harmed by the fact that there could be a lack of buyers for our subsidized seal products. As for that WTO case mentioned in the original post, this seems like a mildly hypocritical time to be bringing up free trade rights.

      • corsullivan permalink*
        March 28, 2009 1:15 pm

        I think Glavin’s point – and one I would agree with – is that sustainability is a reasonable concern, whereas cuteness is superficial at best. They’re certainly separate, but only one is really worth paying attention to. A broader point in his article, that rational environmentalism sometimes gets compromised by “fact-distorting, science-hating, Gaia-bothering obscurantism”, is also hard to argue with.

        I may have missed something, but I’m not sure why you think it’s hypocritical for Canada to be bringing up free trade rights at the moment. I thought we had been pretty good (perhaps too good for our own good, but that’s a separate debate) about resisting whatever protectionist temptations there may be in these tough economic times. With that said, I wouldn’t suggest that we should be trying too hard to foist our seal products on reluctant Europeans. Expanding potential markets elsewhere and promoting domestic consumption strike me as more worthwhile strategies.

        Edited to add: Thanks, Orcaeyes, for the link!

      • March 28, 2009 2:25 pm

        Cor —

        Can’t reply below your comment, so I’ll write it here. I certainly agree that cuteness isn’t a particularly useful criterion in terms of environmental management – but the problem is, it’s a powerful one, and realistically, there may not be much we can do about that. At the end of the day, we’re sellers and they’re buyers. We retain the right to sell elsewhere (if we can), and European countries buy from nowhere. Personally, I’d agree with your suggestion that we should put more effort into finding alternative markets.

        As for maintaining a global free market, well, I admit we’re not going down an overtly protectionist path at the moment. But we gave billions to the banks and the auto companies, we’re talking about another auto bailout, and the current budget would sprinkle even more money around outside those two sectors as well. So it seems to me that our commitment to free competition isn’t necessarily all that deep. I apologize for bringing this up as it’s probably a side issue. If you want to reply to me and put in the last word on the trade rights issue, please feel free – I won’t try to drag it out further.

    • canworldjon permalink*
      March 26, 2009 11:24 pm

      Glavin is great. If only he had a more national pulpit than the Georgian Strait or the for his columns.

  3. canworldjon permalink*
    March 25, 2009 10:48 pm

    Why is it that when defending and advancing Canadian interests abroad becomes a bit difficult — ie: we will face some opposition — politicians start coming up with ways to make their work easier: ie: change the Canadian interest, rather than influence international attitudes?


  1. More Empty Promises? Some Skepticism about Mac Harb’s Argument to End the Seal Hunt « Canada’s World

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