During a bitter 15-year battleto halt the slaughter of white harp seal pups, antisealing groups regularly published appealing pictures of the fluffy young animals, invariably describing them as “baby seals” instead of seal pups. That skilful appeal by animal rights groups such as the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare eventually proved success-
ful in 1983, when the European Community prohibited the importation of fur taken from animals less than 10 days old.
The EC ban caused the collapse of the whitecoat hunt one year later, and it has drastically reduced demand for other Canadian seal pelts. Still, the struggle over seals continues because Atlantic fishermen and fish processors now want the federal government to conduct a massive slaughter of fully grown East Coast seals. The reasons: they say that without keeping the herds in check, rapidly growing seal populations are destroying fishermen’s equipment, eating vast amounts of fish and spreading parasite infections through valuable fish stocks.
Federal biologists acknowledge that in the waters around Newfoundland the harp seal population, once the target of whitecoat hunters, has doubled in size to two million since Ottawa introduced hunting quotas in 1971. And off the coast of Nova Scotia are 50,000 grey seals—animals that are about three
times the size of the 300-lb. adult harp seal. Each one is capable of eating almost two tons of fish a year, according to federal Fisheries and Oceans biologist David Sergeant.
At the same time, native fishermen in Labrador, still adjusting from the collapse of the seal fur hunt which brought them as much as $4,000 each spring, say that seals are eating increasing amounts
of salmon and arctic char, and this loss of income has made it difficult for many natives to hunt the seals for food. Said Toby Andersen, 37, a fisherman from Makkovik, a settlement of 360 residents 160 km north of Goose Bay, Lab.: “Rifle cartridges cost $20 for a box of 20, and a gallon of gasoline costs $3. Without the money from the commercial hunt you cannot afford the subsistence hunt.” And grey seals have been blamed for ruining valuable fish stocks in another way. All seal species carry parasites, but grey seals play a key role in the life cycle of the sealworm, a parasitic animal which eventually infests such fish as cod, halibut and plaice. Micro-organisms on the ocean floor eat seal excrement containing the worm’s eggs, which hatch on the sea floor and pass along the food chain to fish. But environmentalists argue that there is no proven link between the growth of the seal herds and the spread of sealworm in recent years. Vivia Boe, an official with the environmental group Greenpeace, declared: “We are often accused of being
emotional, but fishermen can be emotional too. For them, the seal is at the top of the hit list—it is the rat of the sea.” The Nova Scotia government is firmly on the side of the fishermen and sealers. In a Halifax hearing last May a provincial brief to a seven-member royal commission on the crippled sealing industry noted that grey seal herds off the province’s coasts had doubled in size during the past five years, to approximately 50,000 animals. Then, blaming grey seals for causing $1 million worth of damage to fishermen’s gear in the past year, the brief urged the federal ministry of fisheries and oceans to reduce the size of the herd. The province took its lead from such fishermen as 65-year-old John Kehoe. Kehoe, of the 4,000-member Eastern Fishermen’s Federation in Nova Scotia, asked Ottawa to shrink the herd by killing as many as 36,000 animals. Said Kehoe, who says he has seen seals empty gillnets holding 1,000 lb. of cod in a single night: “Do it this winter when you can get them ashore on the beaches, and do a job on them.”
At the same time, officials at such Atlantic fish processors as Halifaxbased National Sea Food Products Ltd. say that the extra time spent searching for and then discarding sealworm-infested fillets cost the industry $29 million last year. As a result, the processors also want a drastic reduction in the size of the grey seal population. And Gerard Dominic, a spokesman for the Fisheries Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, an organization representing 22 fish processors, says that the rise in seal populations and increasingly infected Newfoundland catches are connected. Said Dominic: “All the evidence points to a definite linkage.”
Despite increasing pressure, Federal Fisheries Minister John Fraser says he will not make a decision on culling the seal herds until he receives the royal commission report on sealing next month. Under its chairman, Quebec Appeal Court Judge Albert Malouf, the commission has been weighing a recommendation calling for a permanent ban on the whitecoat hunt—an action designed to preserve markets for other seal pelts. But the commission—established in June, 1984, by a Liberal administration which strongly defended the spring killing of seal pups—has already been accused of a pro-sealing bias by environmental groups such as Greenpeace. As a result, any recommendation for a seal cull will likely ignite another round of protests against Canadian sealing policies. Warned Greenpeace’s Boe: “There is not the evidence that sealers claim there is that seals are a problem for the fishery.”
MALCOLM GRAY with CHRIS WOOD in Halifax and PETER GARD in St. John’s
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