As Cod Industry Wanes, Canada Announces Controversial Seal Hunt

Babette pops her head out of the quiet pool with barely a ripple, her wet brown eyes peering at Jack Lawson to see if the marine scientist has brought her favorite dish - fresh fish.

He hasn't. But the adult female harp seal remains motionless for close to a minute, listening as Dr. Lawson and a visitor chat about seal diet.

Bored, perhaps, Babette slides below the surface of the research tank a stone's throw from the crashing Atlantic Ocean that is her true home. This is no trained seal. Barking and slapping flippers for dinner isn't something Babette or her associates Tyler, Victor, or Virgil will do.

These are wild harp seals, so named because of the harp-like markings on their backs. Canadian scientists like Lawson are studying harp seals here at the Ocean Sciences Centre of Memorial University to find out how much of each type of fish they eat.

The research is crucial because, dewy-eyed and cute though they may be, the Canadian government says harp seal herds - 4.8 million strong and growing - menace the revival of Canada's once-rich, but now-depleted cod fisheries.

Harp seals are not responsible for wiping out the valuable cod and putting 40,000 fishermen out of work in Canada's Atlantic provinces, many marine scientists say. The cod that once swam in vast schools were devastated by a decade of overfishing by Canadian and foreign trawler fleets, they say.

Yet harp seals may soon pay the price for this human excess. Within days the Canadian government will announce plans for the 1996 annual harp seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland over the outcries of animal rights activists in Europe.

Earlier this year, Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin called for an expanded seal hunt in which the government would subsidize hunters by paying up to 20 cents per pound for seal meat.

Last year only 60,000 seals were killed out of 186,000 ''total allowable catch'' because of rugged ice conditions. This year's hunters may enlist an icebreaker to reach more seals and kill up to 200,000 of them, depending on the limit set by the government, sealing industry officials say.

''This government will work with the sealers and fishermen to rebuild a viable and expanded commercial seal hunt next year,'' Mr. Tobin said at a June news conference in Newfoundland.

Harp seals, Tobin said, eat immature Atlantic cod that could, if left alone, revive Canada's cod fishery much more quickly. They eat about 6.9 million tons of fish each year, he said. Only 3 percent of their diet is valuable Atlantic cod. But that still amounts to 140,000 tons of cod.

Harp seal herds are healthy and can stand hunters' killing up to 287,000 per year without diminishing the population, marine scientists who study seals generally agree. But they also say there is no evidence to show that killing seals will hasten the return of the cod.

''People look at the numbers we've produced and say, 'Wow, those seals are eating a lot of cod,' '' Lawson says. ''But these biological systems are so complex that we just don't know what the effect would be of killing a lot more seals. It might help the cod. But it also might not.''

Harp seals have been hunted commercially since the early 18th century. But Canada, under growing international pressure from animal rights groups, banned the killing of ''white coat'' pups in 1987. The US had banned seal-product imports in 1972 and the European Union banned pelts from immature seals in 1983.

Sealing was a C$16 million (US$12 million) a year industry before it collapsed in 1983 to its present C$1 million a year level. In Newfoundland, there are about 9,000 registered seal hunters, but only about one-third of them are active. Now the industry has gone on the offensive.

''These animal rights people come out and tell outright lies,'' says Tina Fagan, the Canadian Sealer's Association (CSA) executive director. ''We don't yell, scream, or shout anymore. But we're determined to get out our side of the story and tell the truth about the situation.''

With government help and a ''change in public attitudes,'' world markets for seal products are slowly growing, Ms. Fagan says. There is no interest, however, in hunting white-coat pups again, she says.

Critics, however, say the primary market for seals is not for seal meat or fur but for dried seal penises, coveted by practitioners of traditional Asian medicine for alleged healing properties.

The debate goes to the core of critics' arguments against the hunt: Is there really a market for seal parts other than for the males' reproductive organs?

''If we're going to kill seals, we've got to be able to justify the use of the whole pelt,'' says Bernard Martin, a fisherman based in Petty Harbor, south of St. John's, Newfoundland. ''I couldn't buy into a slaughter of these animals just for the sake of slaughter, or just for the sake of the penises.''

The CSA's Ms. Fagan denies that reproductive organs represent the primary value of the animal, saying there is not the huge demand for them that critics claim. The industry, she says, is being maligned.

But Janet Russell, a former fisheries observer and environmental critic in St. John's, says the Canadian government is propping up a dying industry with taxpayer subsidies because it is the politically smart thing to do in a province with a 19 percent unemployment rate.

''The government hears a lot from the public asking them to do something about seals,'' she says. ''They're under a lot of pressure.'' Also, she says, the seals are a ''scapegoat'' to deflect attention from government fishing policies that led to the cod collapse.

Tom Best, president of the Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Cooperatives, which claims 4,000 members, says it's just common sense that there are too many seals eating too many cod.

''I've been fishing for 30 years,'' Mr. Best says. ''And I have seen the seals' impact on the fish. I question the sincerity of those who suggest that the increasing harp seal population is not having an impact on cod.''

Such sentiments are widespread in Newfoundland, yet broad opposition to seal products in European Union countries continues.

''This will be a hunt for seal products that the rest of the world doesn't want,'' says Richard Moore, executive director of the London-based International Federation of Animal Welfare. In June, his group began a boycott of Canadian tinned salmon in Great Britain to protest an expanded and subsidized hunt. ''It's not commercially viable - that's a fact.''

Tobin's moves against the seals, Mr. Moore says, are to meet domestic political needs and are based on uncertain scientific data.

Back at the Ocean Sciences Center, where it's finally feeding time, Lawson hand-feeds Babette a small piece of fish (not cod). She snaps it back into and down her throat. In a year or so, he says, Babette and the others will be released to the wild - and to a less-certain future.

''Do you kill seals despite the fact there isn't a market for all the meat or fur, and despite no evidence of an overall effect on the cod?'' he muses, tossing another tidbit to Babette.

''A number of people around here, seal processors, are saying 'I can sell all the seals you can sell me.' But they're not saying where they would sell them.''

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