We had only known Paul Hiltz and his buddy for a couple of hours, so we thought they were kidding when Hay Island came into view. “See all those grey things?” Hiltz asks, pointing to what we figured were hundreds of big rocks. “Those are seals.”
First, let’s address the issue of cuteness.
A full-grown grey seal is bigger than any fat man you know, and when you walk up to one, it bares its teeth and makes a noise like the snoring that follows a dozen beer.
They defecate prodigiously.
Hay Island is an hour’s trip from Main-a-Dieu in Cape Breton by lobster boat, and during our visit in mid-February, it was populated by thousands of seals.
The only ones with white fur were small pups that were stillborn or had died shortly after they were born. Bald eagles and seagulls had picked clean the meat from their heads, so their skulls were almost as bright as their frozen bodies.
The fur on a newborn grey seal turns from white to brown or mottled less than a month after birth.
“There’s a nice one,” Hiltz says of a seal as he walked the island, which we judged to be about the size of Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, although without a single tree.
“That one would make a nice mat.”
In the spring, it will be lobster season for the fishermen of Main-a-Dieu, who, at other times of the year, supplement their living by dragging for scallops or diving for sea urchins.
Hiltz is also a seal hunter. Or rather, was a seal hunter. Once part of a crew that harvested 400 seals on Hay Island in a single day, he hasn’t been on a hunt in three years. The market for seal products has all but disappeared.
“Why is it all right to kill cows and chickens, but not seals?” he asks. “I can’t figure that out.”
Wayne Denny, fishery director with the Pictou Landing First Nation, has the same question. Three members of his band used to take a few hundred seals each winter, Denny says.
“They saved the fins, and when they got to the shore, there was piles of people coming out looking for the (flippers), so they would just give them away.”
Not enough people eat seal flipper pie to make a hunt worthwhile. A deal to sell seal meat to China is in diplomatic and bureaucratic limbo, and international opposition to the hunt has virtually elim-inated fur demand.
Denny, who once tried to sell seal meat for use as lobster bait, says seals are so plentiful they are a nuisance.
“It stopped in Pictou Landing because there was no market out there. There were so many countries protesting and stuff like that, no matter where you wanted to send it. I tried to get a company in Cape Breton to buy them, to use as lobster bait or whatever, but a lot of people were saying they wouldn’t buy the lobsters if they were going to use the seal bait.
“I’ll tell you right now, when we set our nets for salmon or herring or whatever, you have seals everywhere. Grey seals. You can go to Merigomish Harbour. Before, you wouldn’t even see one; now you go (and) you see about 20 of them.
“If there was a market, there’d be a seal hunt. The seals are flourishing. They’re all over the place.”
Robert Courtney thinks flourishing is an understatement as a description of the winter population of Pictou Island grey seals, which he pegs at 15,000, compared with maybe 3,000 on Hay Island.
Courtney, who represents Nova Scotia sealers and has four decades of hunt experience here and in Newfoundland and Labrador, remembers years they killed so many seals they burned blubber for heat in their sheds while working on fishing gear.
He hopes he hasn’t put away “the bat,” a club used to kill seals, for the last time.
“It will not go on as in the past,” Courtney concedes. “But we might be able to muster enough together for a small market. It’s not going to be two or three hundred thousand. It’s going to be a very small hunt in the harps, and small or nothing in the greys.”
Animal rights activists will tell you the seal hunt, apart from being cruel and inhumane, is irrelevant economically. That may be true on a macro level, but to an individual fisherman such as Hiltz, with four kids, macro is a word for a university economics class.
“People, in the past, have made $10,000, $15,000, in a couple of weeks,” Courtney says. “Very worthwhile. But, right now, the price is down to the bottom, and the way things are, we can’t get rid of what we can harvest.
“Not that many years ago, they got $105 an animal, per pelt. You figure that up, and that’s quite a bit of money. And you can (hunt) with eight, 10 people. You do the math. It’ll tell you how lucrative it can be.”
Not many issues are as polarizing as the seal hunt, with sealers on one side and animal rights activists on the other, each with considerable loathing for each other, each keeping some contempt in reserve for the government and its attempts to regulate the industry.
Courtney dismisses the activists as meddlers who have found a much easier way to make a living than travelling to ice floes or frozen islands and skinning seals.
In his mind, anti-sealers are just like many people, motivated by money.
“They’re not worried about the ecosystem they’re only worried about creating a controversy, getting it in the media, getting every-thing all blown out of proportion and getting the little old ladies to open up their purse and send donations to them.
“They mislead the public. We haven’t harvested any whitecoats for the last 25 years, but they keep showing the cute little baby whitecoat. Show the pictures of today, show the big animals. The cute and cuddly little grey seal lives to be 34 to 38 years old, so you imagine what it has to consume to grow to the size that it is, and to live that long. You’re talking about a population that’s increasing by 12 per cent per year.”
Who knows what was going through the mind of whoever clubbed dozens of seal pups to death on an eastern Prince Edward Island beach this winter and left the bodies to freeze?
If the killer was trying to advance the notion that there are too many seals eating too much fish, the message was lost, says Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, a veterinarian at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown and a veteran seal hunt observer.
Slaughtering 50 animals that are part of a population of 300,000 is a futile gesture, and leaving the carcasses to freeze invites scorn, Daoust says. “It’s easy for the animal rights people to say ‘Look, people in fishing communities have no respect for the animals. How can you expect a sealer who is often a fisherman to have respect for the animal?’”
He thinks the day may come when Atlantic Canadian seal products are exported forconsumption to China, but only if Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency get fully on board.
“If you want to market some of those products for oil or for meat, you need to have CFIA actively engaged in it, and CFIA is engaged, but perhaps in not as consistent a manner as I would like to see, because these things take a long time to develop.
“There was some discussion about promoting the consumption of seal meat in our own country. Will this ever happen? Well, that’s where it should start consuming a resource that is totally sustainable. Before looking at the Chinese market, maybe we should promote the use of this product here, in our country, and I’m a firm believer in that.”
In 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare was founded to oppose the commercial seal hunt. By any measure, it has been staggeringly successful, most recently welcoming Taiwan to a list of over 30 countries that ban seal product imports.
Locally, Bridget Curran is at the forefront of seal hunt opposition as spokeswoman and director of Atlantic Canadian Anti-Sealing Coalition. To Curran, who has spent four years documenting the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador hunts, it is clear: the seal hunt is dead. She points to figures that show the value of seal product exports decreasing by almost 90 per cent from 2007 to 2011.
“In terms of markets closing, which goes hand in hand with the dramatic drop in profits, country after country are closing their doors to seal products.
“There’s been a lot of propaganda put forth by the government and by the sealing industry over many years. The anti-sealing campaign is one of documentation, and one of public education. We’ve been debunking the myth of the government and the sealing industry that the seal hunt is humane. It’s not economically important, it’s not ecologically sound and it’s completely unnecessary.”
Curran describes it as an intentional muddying of the issue to condemn the anti-sealing lobby for putting the interests of seals ahead of humans.
“That’s a common accusation that we get; we’re told if you eat cows and chickens, then you have no business being concerned about seals. By the same token, these people will say if you’re a vegetarian, then you’re a radical. So if you’re not a vegetarian, you’re a hypocrite, and if you are a vegetarian or vegan, then you’re a radical.
“There’s no credible science to show that seals need to be killed to aid in fish-stock recovery. It’s not just a bunch of crazy vegans, ‘How dare you kill the cute little seals?’ It’s not that at all. There’s a wide cross-section (of people).
“Sealers themselves are actually starting to say that maybe a licence buyback would be a good idea. When people involved in the industry are starting to say themselves that it’s over that’s a clear sign that it’s over. So, yes, the sealing industry is definitely dead.”
Source: HERALD MAGAZINE
Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras
Gustavo López Ospina
Pieter Jan Brouwer
Assistant: Emilia Romero
The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice is associated with the International Environmental Mission, a grass roots citizens movement created by Chilean Senator Juan Pablo Letelier.
SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer.