Monday, April 12, 2004

Canada, facing only muted international protests, yesterday began its largest seal hunt in 50 years. By this evening, when the initial 36-hour marathon hunt comes to a close, some 300,000 seals will have been “harvested” — an estimated 10,000 seals per daylight hour.

“The seal hunt in Newfoundland is very much a part of life. It is a way of life that has been going on for centuries,” said Jasmine Panthaky, spokesman for the Canadian Embassy. “It’s not a pretty sight, but it provides sustenance for sealers and, for aboriginal hunters, it is still a food source. … For some, it’s the difference between making it and living below the poverty line.”

Sealers earn about $35 for each pelt. Miss Panthaky said that after years of decline, demand for seal fur is growing in the fashion industry.

Twenty-five years ago, animal-rights activists such as Brigitte Bardot and environmental organizations such as Greenpeace made “killing baby seals” an international cause celebre. Televised images of hunters clubbing bloodied infant seals horrified viewers around the world, eventually leading the United States and European nations to ban the import of seal products.

Although the Humane Society of the United States decried the hunt in full-page advertisements in The Washington Times last month and the New York Times last week, international outrage has been minor.

“It is a commercial slaughter [though] the harp seals are not endangered,” said John Grandy, senior vice president of wildlife for the Humane Society. “It is the largest kill of marine mammals on Earth. That a First World government would support that is reprehensible.”

Celebrity socialite Paris Hilton was recently spotted wearing a sweat shirt saying “Club Sandwiches, Not Seals.” But Greenpeace’s Washington office yesterday said seals were no longer a priority for the organization, saying it was focused on saving forests and promoting clean energy sources.

About 150 trawlers, with more than 12,000 sealers — mostly fishermen unable to fish during the colder months — have converged on the ice floes off Newfoundland and Labrador to shoot harp seals. In an effort to make sealing more humane, clubbing no longer is permitted.

In February, Canada’s Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans set the allowable catch at 975,000 seals in three years — up to 350,000 in any one year. The seals must be at least 12 days old, identifiable when the fur begins to mottle and brown. Canada no longer permits the hunting of baby harp seals, once prized for their snow-white fur.

Doleful-eyed baby seals, called whitecoats, are not endangered. The Canadian government estimates that there are some 5.2 million North Atlantic harp seals, compared with 1.8 million in 1970.

The government and Canadian fishermen blame the seals, which eat cod, for the devastation of the cod-fishing industry in Newfoundland. Critics blame the fishermen’s rapacious fishing for the collapse of the cod industry and the local economy.

“Seal management is founded on sound conservation principles to ensure harvest opportunities now and in the future,” said Robert G. Thibault, minister of fisheries and oceans, when the cull was announced in February. “Seals are a valuable natural resource that, when harvested sustainably, provide valuable income to about 12,000 Canadian sealers and their families.”

At the Hungry Fisherman, located on a wharf of St. John’s, Newfoundland, the cook, who asked that his name not be used, said outsiders should leave “Newfies” to their own way of life.

“Hunting seals is no different than hunting deer or ducks [in the United States],” he said. “It is good meat, a little greasy. We don’t serve it here, but I like seal.”

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