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Paul Watson spices up Canada seal hunt fight

Controversial Whale Wars captain Paul Watson has spiced up opposition to the Canada seal hunt -- offering $50,000 to anyone who can prove Harp seals wastefully eat cod. Canadian senators – in a snub to the EU – promise to keep seal meat on Parliament's menu for as long as the animals are in season.

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Sealing may be one of the few issues over which the generally popular Canadians get grief abroad. Last year, the European Union voted to ban seal imports from Canada and elsewhere, though that's being challenged on restraint of trade grounds by Inuit in Canada and Greenland.

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But rather than back down and seek compromise, politicians there have taken a number of steps that -- whatever their real intentions -- seem designed to infuriate the world's seal-lovers.

Last year, Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean helped gut a seal and ate some of its raw meat for the cameras at an Inuit festival in Nunavut. And last May, the Canadian Parliament voted unanimously to ask its Olympic team to wear either seal pelts or sealskin at the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, though that plan was later dropped. The sealskin ploy was a direct response to the EU ban.

Thriving seals, struggling fishermen

Shannon Lewis, executive director of the North East Coast Sealers Cooperative in Fleur De Lys on Newfoundland, says harp seals are thriving in the North Atlantic. He says the current Canadian population is estimated at more than 6.8 million now, up from a nadir of 2 million in the 1980s, and disagrees with Ms. Fink about the seals' impact on the fishery.

"It's proven that there is a correlation between the amount of seals and the decline of the fish stocks," he says. "We’ve had fishermen on the Nova Scotia coast who had to refrain from fishing due to the nuisance of seals getting in their traps and nets."

He also insists that seal pups – which are generally clubbed to death and referred to in the business as "beaters" – are dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible. Campaigners like Fink, however, charge that the way the hunt is set up – the quota is filled by whoever can kill the seals the fastest – prompts a race that leads to sloppy kills and suffering.

While Mr. Lewis acknowledges that seal hunting is an important part of the economic mix for fishermen in rural Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, he claims that abandoning the seal hunt would be disastrous. "It’s not a matter of market conditions as much as it’s a matter of necessity to harvest them to create some sort of equilibrium between fish and seal stocks, or we’re going to lose the fish," Lewis says. "The seal processors and the fishing industry are a significant part of the economy iin rural Newfoundland."

Fink at IFAW points out that the challenge by the Inuit doesn't make sense on its own, since the EU ban makes explicit exceptions for Inuit and other aboriginal hunting of the animals. She says that most Inuit seal hunting in Canada is sustainable and largely consists of killing adults for meat, something her group doesn't oppose.

The commercial hunt, which almost exclusively kills pups for the fur and pelt trade, is something else, she says.

Fink says her group obtained a government memo under Canada's freedom of information laws that suggests sealing advocates "should play the Nunavut Inuit card to get people to open up their markets so that the commercial sealers can follow."

Fink says "99 percent of the seal hunt isn’t about meat. The seals they’re killing are a month old – they don’t have any meat on them." Canadian politicians and sealing advocates, by publicizing things like Parliament's menu, she says, are "deliberately trying to confuse the two."

"Yes, they are intelligent, interesting animals and they are cute," says Lewis. "But they are a manageable and renewable resource that can be harvested humanely. The sealing industry is a significant part of our economy, the seals a part of our ecosystem that has to be utilized."

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