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Hunters crush seal skull with clubs { April 5 2004 }

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Copyright 2003 The International Herald Tribune |

Clubs are out in force for baby seals
Clifford Krauss/NYT NYT
Monday, April 5, 2004

CAPS-AUX-MEULES, Quebec Buoyed by new markets in Russia and Poland, and by changing environmental calculations, Canada has lifted the quota for baby seal hunting to a rate unheard of in a half-century.

Animal rights advocates, horrified by the clubbing of infant harp seals, swayed public opinion against the hunt two decades ago. Environmentalists joined the campaign, fearing the species was being depleted. World sales collapsed. Even Canada reacted with revulsion and began stiffening regulations.

But now, a recovering market has turned into a quiet boom.

Here on ice patches of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the hunt looks nearly as brutal as ever. For as far as the eye can see, dozens of burly men bearing clubs roam the ice in snowmobiles and spiked boots in search of silvery young harp seals. With one or two blows to the head, they crush the skulls, sometimes leaving the young animals in convulsions. The men drag the bodies to waiting fishing vessels or skin them on the spot, leaving a crisscross of bloody trails on the slowly melting ice.

On the trawler Manon Yvon, one hunter, Jocelyn Theriault, 35, said, "My father hunted for 45 years so I was born with the seal." His fellow hunters tease their prey with a sarcastic "welcome aboard" as they throw the fresh skins on their 65-foot boat. "We do it for the money," Theriault said, "but it's also a tradition in our blood."

Animal rights advocates aroused the world in the 1970s and 1980s with grim films of Canadian seal hunters clubbing white-coated seal pups not yet weaned off their mother's milk and then skinning some alive. That campaign - complete with photographs of Brigitte Bardot snuggling an infant seal - succeeded in shutting down American and European markets and forcing a virtual collapse of the hunt.

But over the last six years Canada's seal hunt, by far the world's largest and commercially most valuable, has undergone a gradual revival that has virtually escaped world attention. That trend is making an extraordinary jump this year, when the federal government will allow the killing of up to 350,000 baby harp seals, or more than one in three born, largely for their valuable fur.

That is a rise of more than 100,000 from recent years and the largest number hunted in at least 50 years.

Rising prices for the skins and contentions that the growing seal population is contributing to a shrinking fish population have eased the revival of an industry once roundly seen as barbaric. Meanwhile tougher hunting rules, including stiffer regulations to avert skinning the seals alive, have muted the effort to stop the hunt and eased the consciences of Canadians.

"This slaughter that everyone thinks has disappeared is back with a vengeance," said Rebecca Aldworth, an anti-hunt advocate with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The majority of the seals killed are under a month old, she said, and "at that age, the seals haven't eaten their first solid foods and have not learned to swim so they have no escape from the hunters."

The seal hunt never completely shut down. After the United States banned the importation of all seal products in 1972 and the European Union banned the importation of the white pelts of the youngest pups in 1983, killings fell to as low as 15,000 harp seals in 1985, mostly for meat and local handicrafts.

Embarrassed by all the publicity accusing Canada of inhumane treatment of animals, the government banned killing "whitecoats" - the youngest pups up to 12 days old. Now, only the seals that have shed their white coats and become "beaters" at about three weeks old are killed in these waters, for their black-spotted silvery fur. The killing of these young seals has so far raised fewer hackles, although critics say hunting methods have not been changed substantially.

The surprising rebound of the hunt off the Magdalen Islands and the northern coast of Newfoundland, where the harp seals migrate south from the Arctic every spring to give birth and then mate again, results in large part from a robust revival in the price of sealskin.

Seal products remain banned in the United States and they find only limited acceptance in most of Western Europe. But new markets have emerged in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, with a fashion trend to sealskin hats and accessories. Fur experts expect the Chinese market to grow, perhaps raising prices even higher.

"Markets are good, acceptance is growing and prices are well up," said Tina Fagen, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association. She said the price for a top grade harp sealskin had more than doubled since 2001, to the equivalent of $42, approaching the prices of the early 1970s.

But the revival is also made possible by a Canadian seal population that was replenished during the long hunting slump. The Canadian harp seal population has tripled in size since 1970, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to more than five million today.

Fishermen contend that the abundance of seals is hindering a revival of cod stocks, since each adult seal eats an estimated ton of sea life annually. The fishermen get support from politicians who want to help revive economically depressed regions of Canada, and some scientists say their position is reasonable.

Animal rights advocates are revving up a campaign against the hunt, reviving calls for a tourism boycott of Canada and flying journalists in a helicopter over the breaking ice fields to photograph hunters killing the seals.

A new generation of celebrities has taken up the cause, including Paris Hilton, Christina Applegate and Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys pop group. At the last Sundance film festival, people wore a new T-shirt that said "Club sandwiches, not seals."

But so far the outrage has not echoed the way it once did, in part because Canada outlawed the killing of the youngest pups to follow Western European import guidelines and stiffened regulations and enforcement to assure that seals are killed quickly and not skinned alive. Seal hunting is worth about $30 million annually to the Newfoundland economy, which has been punished by the collapse of the cod fishery. About 5,000 seal hunters and 350 plant workers who process skins rely on the industry. Hundreds more hunting jobs are created in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

"I love it that the market is back," said Jason Spence, the 32-year-old captain of Ryan's Pride, a fishing boat that set sail from Newfoundland a few weeks ago for the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Arguing that hunting seals is no worse than "people taking the heads off chickens, butchering cows and butchering pigs," he added, "People are just trying to make a living."

The New York Times

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