Seal of disapproval

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2006, 12:00am

First it was Sir Paul McCartney and wife Heather sprawled on the ice in a photo opportunity with a baby seal. Then, it was 71-year-old Brigitte Bardot, in Ottawa last week pleading for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Yes, that means the 'whitecoats' are emerging from their mother's wombs and Canada is receiving its annual black eye for the seal hunt.

Much of the sealing takes place in the waters surrounding the province of Newfoundland, a rocky island of poor soils and impoverished inhabitants of small communities set in isolated bays and channels. They are a hardy people who have been hauling a living from the waters of the North Atlantic since the 1600s. Once the ocean teemed with cod, but the stocks were wiped out by the 1980s and there is no longer a commercial cod fishery.

So the people live by their wits. They hunt moose for their winter meat. They keep gardens, pick berries, shoot ducks and they fish to feed their families. They also, come spring, head out on the sea ice to kill six different species of seal to earn a little cash. For many, the hunt amounts to more than 25 per cent of their yearly income.

It is, as much of the world now knows, a brutal, bloody business. Although most Newfoundlanders hunt with guns, some club the seals to death with specially designed wooden cudgels. Fisheries regulations oblige them to administer two sharp blows to the head.

That leaves the pelt without bullet holes. But it also leaves the impression that Newfoundlanders are brutes without feelings. Video footage and photos of hunters beating the cute little animals to death are gruesome in the extreme. And the bloody mess left behind after the seals have been skinned contrasts nicely with the bright, white snow. Those images have been money in the bank for protest groups, which feature them in all their fund-raising appeals.

This year's quota for harp seals, by far the most important of the species hunted, is 325,000. At one time, hunters targeted pups under the age of 14 days because of their white coats. That's now illegal. Today, most are taken at around 24 days, when their coats have turned grey. The pelts make marvelously water-repellent and warm garments, seal oil is turned into nutritional supplement capsules rich in Omega-3, and the meat is used for both human and animal consumption.

As the season began this year, the hunters were delighted to discover a great deal of broken ice and open water. Normally, the ocean off the Newfoundland coast is covered in sheets of thick ice. The open water means the helicopters bearing well-heeled protesters can't land to film and photograph the hunters, skipping from ice pan to ice pan, going about their bloody business.