The following article was first published Sept. 23, 2005 by the Atlantic & East Coast Report, Canada Free Press, and is reproduced with the author's permission.

What motivates seal hunt protest groups?

In an effort to stop Atlantic Canada's annual seal hunt, sealing protest groups are using the tactic of pressuring restaurants in the U.S. into boycotting Canadian seafood products. We all hear sporadic news reports on the efforts of seal protests but how much do we really understand about what these groups are doing, and what is the truth behind the hunt itself?

If you visit the web sites of the multitude of protest groups out there such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, or for that matter even the American SPCA, the first thing you will notice is that these groups are blatantly misleading the public on the topic of the Atlantic seal hunt.

They insist on displaying pictures of baby white coat seals, they talk about hunters skinning animals alive and some refer to seal hunters as barbarians. This may play well in areas around the world where people do not know the truth, but not in many parts of Atlantic Canada and most assuredly not in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The truth is that white coat baby seals have not been hunted for decades and sealers are not savages who enjoy torturing animals. Granted, there may be an isolated number of "idiots" out there who couldn't care less about the cruelty they inflict, but this is true of any place in the world and in any industry. It is not the norm. The average sealer is just like you and me, with one exception. They are trying to make a living in a much tougher and much more dangerous line of work than many of us could even dream of.

One only has to visit the web sites of these groups to see a possible motive for dispensing with reality and spreading hatred. Money. All of these sites, without exception, have links where the gullible can donate. One site I visited actually had over 15 such links on its front page.

The fact is that these groups are actually making more from the annual Atlantic seal hunt than the sealers themselves. Take for example the $77.5 million U.S. the International Fund For Animal Welfare raised last year and it's easy to see the benefits seal hunting actually bring to protest groups. Fund raising, not protection of species, is often their prime objective. It might be very enlightening if groups who use the March seal hunt as their annual fundraiser were placed under microscopic investigation to see how much money they really make from it and exactly how that money is spent.

If these groups were truly interested in protecting a species, why not fight to protect overfished cod stocks which are truly on the brink of extinction? The answer is simple. Even though seal populations are quite strong, they are far cuter than the lowly cod fish. Who among us would dig deep into their pockets seeing a picture of a cod fish? But a doe-eyed baby seal, now that's a different story.

Atlantic cod stocks are nearly depleted, due in part to overfishing both in Canada and abroad, but also due to the voracious appetite of seals. The current seal population is larger than it has been in decades and these predators, make no mistake, they are predators, love fish.

Recently Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society publicly stated that seals actually eat very little cod, instead they prey on species that eat the cod. According to Mr. Watson, by leaving the seals alone, cod stocks would be increased.

One thing Mr. Watson never mentioned however is exactly what these other predatory species are. Could it be that he didn't say what these species are because he can't? What exactly is eating the cod and are the seals really eating these predators? Does he expect people to believe that seals are eating sharks, or maybe it's whales they're after? For his sake I hope it isn't the latter because if it is, how will he ever protect both the seals and the whales?

A few years back a video was shot by a local resident in one of the bays in Newfoundland. This video clearly showed seals herding thousands of cod into the bay and savagely ripping their bellies out. Because the video was not shot by an "official" source, it was completely disregarded by protest groups.

In a way Mr. Watson is right about seals not eating a great deal of cod. They usually just feed on the soft underbelly of the fish, unfortunately once the belly is ripped out, the cod doesn't just swim happily away. Unfortunately as well, the belly alone does little to satiate a full grown seal so after killing the first, it simply moves on to the next cod and the next and the next.

If these groups really wanted to stop seal hunting, rather than using the current tactic of trying to force restaurants to boycott Canadian fish products, maybe they should try to stop overfishing in Atlantic waters. If fish stocks came back to a viable level, fishers might not need to hunt as many seals to augment their incomes. Instead of taking this type of approach however, they would rather paint sealers as barbarians who love to go to the ice and massacre poor baby seals. Is this even rational?

Who in their right mind would believe that people are going out to the hunt and risking their lives under the coldest, harshest conditions imaginable, simply for the fun of it? Life on the ice flows is perhaps one of the most dangerous there is. Over the years hundreds of sealers have died trying to support their families in this way. It is certainly not a walk in the park.

Protest groups speak endlessly about the brutal clubbing of baby seals off Newfoundland. The truth is, baby seals are not the target and most, not all, but most of the seals hunted in those waters are taken by rifle, not club. This was a lesson learned decades ago when public outrage caused a closure of the hunt.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) have stated publicly on several occasions that the hunt is as humane as is possible under such harsh conditions as the ice packs. These comments are not acceptable to protestors who see only big seal eyes and even bigger bank accounts.

The truth is, there is only one difference between hunting a seal by rifle and hunting deer, elk or ducks, all of which are commonly accepted sports. Simply put, deer, elk and duck hunting are done primarily for sport, while seal hunting is done to provide food, export products and to help support families.

Every day millions of chickens, cows, pigs, etc are slaughtered to provide food for the nation's dinner tables. Why does nobody protest this? Is it simply because the killing of these animals is done behind closed doors while seals are killed on pristine white ice where it's harder to hide the blood?

I would almost be willing to bet that most of the well-meaning folks who donate regularly to seal protest organizations don't mind hunting deer or elk, many probably enjoy salmon or trout fishing and no doubt the vast majority of them are not vegetarians.

Keep in mind that not only the seal pelts are used, although that's what these protest groups would have the public believe. Maybe this is because it's harder to raise funds by saying they want to take away a food source. Cattle ranchers and chicken farmers might get upset at that one.

In reality, seal meat is also a valuable commodity and the oil (high in Omega 3 fatty acids) is a great source of nutrients. As a matter of fact hospitals in England are currently looking at it as an intravenous food source for critically ill patients. I know it doesn't look nice to see an animal killed. I, like many people, would never be able to do it myself. But I also bet that you, like I, have never been inside a rendering plant or slaughter house. I wonder what our reaction would be to eating beef, chicken, pork, or for that matter wearing leather shoes or coats, if we could see the process involved in slaughtering these animals and producing these products.

In a CBC interview a number of years back, Paul Watson, one of the world's leading seal protesters, stated that he thought the International Fund for Animal Welfare was simply making a money grab by using the seal hunt to raise funds. At the time, he said that since seals were not endangered, protesting the hunt was beneficial primarily to the protest group's bank accounts.

Turn the clock ahead a few years and apparently Mr. Watson has learned where the big money really is. The Canadian seal hunt. Practically overnight his group, the Sea Shepherd Society, was propelled from being an obscure group to being center stage in the protest world and its coffers began to overflow. All because they took up the cause of the poor abused baby seal.

I have to wonder, since hunting seals is not solely a Canadian issue, why it is the biggest target of these groups. There is a major hunt in the American state of Alaska each year. This hunt is much larger than the Atlantic hunt, but nobody ever seems to notice it. Instead protest groups would rather ignore the Alaskan hunt and focus on Atlantic Canada. Could it be that U.S. citizens provide the vast majority of funding to these groups and, as they say, you don't bite the hand that feeds you?


The author is a freelance columnist originally from central Newfoundland. He now resides in Portugal Cove, St. Philips. His interest in Newfoundland and Labrador political and social issues is obvious in his writing for several publications and on his own web site, Web Talk - Newfoundland and Labrador.

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