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.

Stewart Cook/IFAW/EPA
A baby harp seal on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Paul Watson has challenged Canada's annual seal hunt by offering a reward to anyone who can prove the seals pose a threat to the Canadian fishing industry.

It doesn't have quite the drama and global appeal as his Whale Wars. But Sea Shepherd captain and Canadian Paul Watson reentered the emotional debate over Canada's annual seal hunt last month, with predictable results.

Fishermen on the Atlantic coast of Canada have complained for years that harp seals have been depleting stocks of cod, and that a global campaign to put Canada's sealers out of business – most based in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia – could also spell doom for its fishermen, who bring in about $30 million worth of Atlantic cod a year.

Some fishermen believe that the seals preferentially dine on the nutrient-rich livers and bellies of the cod, leaving the rest to go to waste and requiring more fish to be killed to make a meal. Mr. Watson says that's absurd, and has offered $50,000 to anyone who can provide video evidence of the practice. The move is designed to generate publicity and support for the campaign to end what he an many others consider a barbaric practice.

That claim echoes past claims about other other predators that were later proved to be false (ranchers and hunters have at various times claimed that wolves and coyotes were indiscriminate killers). But there does appear to be a grain of truth here. In a 2005 report, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that seals are an important predator – even though cod are preyed upon at various stages in their life cycle by squid, minke whales, halibut, and other cod. While the seals mostly feed on smaller fish, the report found that "large cod probably have few natural predators, but seals can prey upon them by belly-feeding."

Still, the presence of large apex predators like seals are typically a sign of a healthy and productive ecosystem, and human fishing activity – whether it targets North Atlantic cod or bluefin tuna – is the reason for the collapse of fish stocks worldwide. And if seals were taken out of the picture, the population of squid – which eat juvenile cod and are in turn eaten by the seals – might well explode.

"There's not a single speck of evidence that the seals are the problem," says Sheryl Fink, a Canadian researcher for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "Of course it’s easier to blame a predator rather than blaming our own overfishing or mismanagement. Close fisheries? Politicians don’t want to do that, so they leave fisheries open far too long. And then when they decline, they blame the seals."

Seal: It's what's for lunch

Nevertheless, Canada's Parliament, which has strongly supported the hunt, isn't taking any of this lying down. In fact, it's taking it to lunch. On Wednesday, the legislators' lunch is scheduled to revolve around "double smoked, bacon-wrapped seal loin," according to a menu released to the press, though a medley of organic Canadian vegetables is also on offer. The Parliament press office said it expects to serve one seal dish a week until the hunt ends in May.

"Next week, when my colleagues and I will eat seal meat in the parliamentary restaurant, we will not be doing this as a 'gimmick,' " Quebec Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette wrote on her website. Instead, the meal will be "a testament to the solidarity of parliamentarians who support Canadians who fully contribute to the prosperity and diversity of this country."

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.

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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