Backed up by a newly released gruesome video, animal-rights activists charge that Canada's seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland - the world's largest marine mammal hunt - is cruel and "out of control."
Contrary to government pledges that the hunt is "humane, well regulated, sustainable, and free from waste," the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says it has proof the opposite is true.
"The government claims of what is going on out there are obviously untrue," says Arthur Cady, an IFAW spokesman in Ottawa. "Experts that looked at this tape say it shows the hunt is cruel and that laws to protect animals aren't being enforced."
Gap between theory and practice
Government regulations today require that "no person shall attempt to kill a marine mammal except in a manner that is designed to kill it quickly." Yet the IFAW video of the 1996 hunt released Monday shows live seals being hooked with sharpened boat hooks, others shot and left to die on the ice, and another skinned alive, to name a few illegal practices.
In all, the 10-hour video, shot aboard four different vessels by undercover activists for the IFAW, showed 144 apparent violations of government regulations. The activists told the hunters they were shooting a video for a US hunting program.
Even some defenders of the hunt were surprised by the video. "There were things in that video that I wish I didn't have to see and that I wish never happened," says Tina Fagan, executive director of the Canadian Sealers' Association in St. John's, Newfoundland.
"There were some scenes where obvious aspects of cruelty are involved. We don't condone or support that. But this is not representative of the hunt overall," she says.
David Bevan, director general of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa, agrees. "We're having this video reviewed by investigators, and if there's charges to be laid they will be," he says. "What you see [on TV] in the eight-minute excerpt is not necessarily representative."
Canadians have been particularly sensitive to the charge of animal cruelty ever since movie actress Brigitte Bardot led a global boycott against the killing of Canadian seal pups in the early 1970s. Journalists following her onto the ice filmed the bloody spring hunt in which young whitecoat seals were killed by club-wielding hunters.
Under international pressure, Canada banned the killing of whitecoats in 1987. The US banned the import of seal products in 1972, and the European Union banned pelts from immature seals in 1983. The market for seal meat and pelts subsequently dried up.
The pendulum swings
But with the early 1990s collapse of the East Coast cod-fishing industry, there has been intense pressure on the Canadian government to allow more ex-fishermen to hunt seals.
Rightly or wrongly, seals, which eat cod fish, are seen as a threat to the revival of the cod and to a fishing way of life.
About 60,000 seals were "harvested" in the 1995 spring hunt out of a quota of 186,000. Last year there were many violations: 268,016 were taken; the quota was 258,000. This year the quota is 275,000.
About 11,000 hunters are expected this year. Coast Guard vessels, aircraft, and about 100 officers will observe the hunt.
After the 1996 hunt, 101 charges were laid for illegally selling underage whitecoat harp and "blueback" hooded seal pups.
"Canadians are quite naturally and rightly horrified" over the video, says Mr. Cady. "Canadians aren't cruel people and they will not tolerate this cruelty and criminal activity."