Seal hunting, or sealing, is the personal or commercial hunting of seals. The hunt is currently practiced in five countries: Canada, where most of the world's seal hunting takes place, as well as Namibia, the Danish region Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Canada's largest market for seals is Norway (through GC Rieber AS).
Harp seal populations in the northwest Atlantic declined to approximately 2 million in the early 1970s, prompting stronger regulations on seal hunting. As a result of these regulations, the harp seal population in this area increased steadily until the mid 1990's, and was estimated at 5.9 million (between 4.6 and 7.2 million) in 2004. Harp seals have never been considered endangered; the Marine Animal Response Society estimates the harp seal population in the world is approximately 8 million (between 6.4 and 9.5 million).
As a result of population concerns, hunting is now controlled by quotas based on recommendations from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), and in 2007, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) set the "total allowable catch" (TAC) of harp seals at 270,000 per year. The Canadian harp seal hunt is by far the largest. The 2007 catch was 234,000 seals, down from 354,000 the year before. According to data gathered by the European Food Safety Authority, Norway claimed only 29,000 with Russia and Greenland landing 5,476 and 90,000 in 2007 respectively.
It is illegal in Canada to hunt newborn harp seals known as "whitecoats". It is also illegal to hunt young, hooded seals (bluebacks). When the seal pups begin to molt their downy white fur at the age of 12–14 days, they are called "ragged-jacket" and can be commercially hunted. After molting, the seals are called "beaters", named for the way they beat the water with their flippers. The practice remains highly controversial, attracting significant media coverage and protests each year. Images from past hunts have become iconic symbols for conservation, animal welfare, and animal rights advocates. In 2009, Russia banned the hunting of harp seals less than one year old.
Archeological evidence indicates that the Native Americans and First Nations People in Canada have been hunting seals for at least 4,000 years. Traditionally, when an Inuit boy killed his first seal or caribou, a feast was held. The meat was an important source of fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and iron, and the pelts were prized for their warmth. The Inuit diet is rich in fish, whale, and seal.
The Inuit seal hunting accounts for three percent of the total hunt. The traditional Inuit seal hunting is excluded from The European Commission's call in 2006 for a ban on the import, export and sale of all harp and hooded seal products. The natsiq (ringed seal) have been the main staple for food, and have been used for clothing, boots, fuel for lamps, a delicacy, containers, igloo windows, and furnished harnesses for huskies. The natsiq is no longer used to this extent, but ringed seal is still an important food source for the people of Nunavut. Called nayiq by the Central Alaskan Yup'ik people, the ringed seal is also hunted and eaten in Alaska.
Seal coats have long been prized for their warmth. Seal oil was often used as lamp fuel, lubricating and cooking oil, for processing such materials as leather and jute, as a constituent of soap, and as the liquid base for red ochre paint.
There is evidence that seals were hunted in northwest Europe and the Baltic Sea more than 10,000 years ago. The first commercial hunting of seals is said to have occurred in 1515, when a cargo of fur seal skins from Uruguay was sent to Spain for sale in the markets of Seville. Sealing became more prevalent in the late 1700s when seal herds in the southern hemisphere began to be hunted by whalers. In 1778, English sealers brought back from the Island of South Georgia and the Magellan Strait area as many as 40,000 seal skins and 2,800 tons of elephant seal oil. In 1791, 102 vessels, manned by 3000 sealers, were hunting seals south of the equator. The principal American sealing ports were Stonington and New Haven, Connecticut. Most of the pelts taken during these expeditions would be sold in China.
The Newfoundland seal hunt became an annually recorded event starting in 1723. By the late 1800s, sealing had become the second most important industry in Newfoundland, second only to cod fishing. In 2007 the commercial seal hunt dividend contributed about $6 million to the Newfoundland GDP, a fraction of the industry's former importance..
Commercial sealing in Australasia appears to have started with Eber Bunker, master of the William and Ann who announced his intention in November 1791 to visit Dusky Sound in New Zealand, did call in that country and had skins on board when he got back to Britain. Captain Raven of the Britannia stationed a party at Dusky from 1792–93 but the discovery of Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Van Diemen's Land, now called Tasmania, saw the sealers' focus shift there in 1798 when a gang including Daniel Cooper was landed from the Nautilus on Cape Barren Island. With Bass Strait over-exploited by 1802 attention returned to southern New Zealand where Stewart Island/Rakiura and Foveaux Strait were explored, exploited and charted from 1803 to 1804. Thereafter attention shifted to the subantarctic Antipodes Islands, 1805–7, the Auckland Islands from 1806, the south east coast of New Zealand's South Island, Otago Harbour and Solander Island by 1809, before focusing further to the south at the newly discovered Campbell Island and Macquarie Island from 1810. In this time sealers were active on the southern coast of mainland Australia, for example at Kangaroo Island. This whole development has been called the first sealing boom and sparked the Sealers' War in southern New Zealand. By the mid teens of the 19th century, sealing had faded. There was a brief revival from 1823 but this was very short-lived. Although highly profitable at times and affording New South Wales one of its earliest trade staples, its unregulated character saw its self-destruction. Some traders were Australian-based, notably Simeon Lord, Henry Kable, James Underwood and Robert Campbell, but American and British traders and seamen were engaged in it too, such as the Plummers of London and the Whitneys of New York.
By 1830, most seal stocks had been seriously depleted, and Lloyd's records only showed one full-time sealing vessel on its books. Since then, a number of nations have outlawed the hunting of seals and other marine mammals. The landmark North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911 was the first international treaty specifically addressing wildlife conservation. Today, commercial sealing is conducted by only five nations: Canada, Greenland, Namibia, Norway, and Russia. The United States, which had been heavily involved in the sealing industry, now maintains a complete ban on the commercial hunting of marine mammals, with the exception of indigenous peoples who are allowed to hunt a small number of seals each year.
In regards to the Canadian commercial seal hunt, the majority of the hunters initiate the kill using a firearm. Reportedly, in one case, three out of eight times, the animal was not rendered either dead or unconscious by shooting, and the hunters will then kill the seal using a hakapik or other club of a type that is sanctioned by the governing authority. 90% of sealers on the ice floes of the Front (east of Newfoundland), where the majority of the hunt occurs, use firearms. Canadian sealing regulations describe the dimensions of the clubs and the hakapiks, and caliber of the rifles and minimum bullet velocity, that can be used. They state that: "Every person who strikes a seal with a club or hakapik shall strike the seal on the forehead until its skull has been crushed," and that "No person shall commence to skin or bleed a seal until the seal is dead," which occurs when it "has a glassy-eyed, staring appearance and exhibits no blinking reflex when its eye is touched while it is in a relaxed condition."
One method of killing seals is with the hakapik: a heavy wooden club with a hammer head and metal hook on the end. The hakapik is used because of its efficiency; the animal can be killed quickly without damage to its pelt. The hammer head is used to crush the skull, while the hook is used to move the carcass.
Seal skins have been used by aboriginal people for millennia to make waterproof jackets and boots, and seal fur to make fur coats. Pelts account for over half the processed value of a seal, selling at over C$100 each as of 2006. According to Paul Christian Rieber, of GC Rieber AS, the difficult ice conditions and low quotas in 2006 resulted in less access to seal pelts, which caused the commodity price to be pushed up. One high-end fashion designer, Donatella Versace, has begun to use seal pelts, while others, such as Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren, refrain from using any kind of fur.
Seal meat is an important source of food for residents of small coastal communities. Meat is sold to the Asian pet food market; in 2004, only Taiwan and South Korea purchased seal meat from Canada. The seal blubber is used to make seal oil, which is marketed as a fish oil supplement. In 2001, two percent of Canada's raw seal oil was processed and sold in Canadian health stores. There has been virtually no market for seal organs since 1998.
In 2005, three companies exported seal skin: Rieber in Norway, Atlantic Marine in Canada and Great Greenland in Greenland. Their clients were earlier French fashion houses and fur makers in Europe, but today the fur is mainly exported to Russia and China.
In Canada, the season for the commercial hunt of harp seal is from November 15 to May 15. Most sealing occurs in late March in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and during the first or second week of April off Newfoundland, in an area known as "The Front." This peak spring period is generally what is referred to as the "Canadian Seal Hunt".
In 2003, the three-year harp seal quota granted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was increased to a maximum of 975,000 animals per three years, with a maximum of 350,000 animals in any two consecutive years. In 2006, 325,000 harp seals, as well as 10,000 hooded seals and 10,400 grey seals were killed. An additional 10,000 animals were allocated for hunting by Aboriginal peoples. The current Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is estimated at 5.6 million animals.
The Canadian seal hunt is monitored by the Canadian government. Although around 70 percent of Canadian seals killed are killed on "The Front," the vast majority of private monitors focus on the St. Lawrence hunt, because of its more convenient location. The 2006 St. Lawrence leg of the hunt was officially closed on Apr. 3, 2006. Sealers had exceeded the quota by 1,000 animals by the time the hunt was closed. On March 26, 2007 the Newfoundland and Labrador government launched a seal hunt website.
Warm winters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have led to thinner and more unstable ice there. In 2007, Canada's federal fisheries ministry reported that while the pups are born on the ice as usual, the ice floes have started to break up before the pups learn to swim, causing the pups to drown. The 2007 harp seal quota was reduced 20 percent by Canadian authorities because overflights showed large numbers of seal pups were lost to thin and melting ice. However in southern Labrador and off Newfoundland's northeast coast, there was extra heavy ice in 2007, and the coast guard estimated that as many as 100 vessels were trapped in ice simultaneously.
The "Seal Protection Regulations" were established under the Fisheries Act by the Government of Canada in the mid-1960s. The regulations were combined with other Canadian marine mammals regulations in 1993, into the "Marine Mammal Regulations". In addition to describing the use of the rifle and hakapik (see further up in this article), regulations also state that every person "who fishes for seals for personal or commercial use shall land the pelt or the carcass of the seal." The commercial hunting of infant harp seals (whitecoats) and infant hooded seals (bluebacks) was banned in Canada in 1987 under pressure from animal rights groups. Now seals may only be killed once they have started moulting (from 12 to 15 days of age for harp seals), as this coincides with the time when they are abandoned by their mothers. These pups, who have not yet completely moulted, are known as "ragged-jackets". Once the pups have completely moulted, they are called "beaters".
Canada's biggest market for seal pelts is Norway. Carino Limited is one of Newfoundland's largest seal pelt producers. Carino (CAnada–RIeber–NOrway) is marketing its seal pelts mainly through its parent company, GC Rieber Skinn, Bergen, Norway. Canada sold pelts to eleven countries in 2004, with Norway, Germany, Greenland, and China, including Hong Kong, purchasing the largest quantities. Other buying countries were Finland, Denmark, France, Greece, South Korea, and Russia. Asia remains the principal market for seal meat exports. One of Canada's market access priorities for 2002, was to "continue to press Korean authorities to obtain the necessary approvals for the sale of seal meat for human consumption in Korea." Canadian and Korean officials agreed in 2003 on specific Korean import requirements for seal meat. For 2004, only Taiwan and South Korea purchased seal meat from Canada.
Total Canadian seal product exports were valued at $18 million (CAD) in 2006. Of this, $5.4 million went to the EU. In 2009 the European Union banned all seal products in the EU therefore reducing the Canadian seal industry greatly.
Although official figures for the Greenland seal hunt are not available, the government of Canada estimates that 20,000 to 25,000 seals are killed in Greenland annually. In January 2006, the government of Greenland banned imports of Canadian seal skins, citing fears that Canadian seals are brutally beaten to death. The boycott may be an effort to distance Greenland's own seal hunt from Canada's, and spare themselves negative press in the process. The ban was rescinded in May 2006, with the Greenland Home Rule Government noting that the seal hunt in Canada has sensible regulations on hunting methods, drawn up in close cooperation with biologists, veterinarians, weapons experts and seal hunters. It further noted that seal-hunting in Canada is subject to strict and extensive control measures, to ensure the use of effective and humane killing methods.
In Greenland seal hunting is conducted with rifles - the seals being shot in the head from a small open boat while they sit on an ice flow. The shot needs to be very accurate and the boat must rush up to the seal to hook the carcass out of the water where it falls within a few seconds before it sinks. The economy of certain very rural Greenlandic villages such as Aappilattoq are highly dependent upon such seal hunting.
In 2000, the Namibian government approved a quota of 67,000 Cape fur seals, including 60,000 pups and 7,000 bulls.
The Norwegian sealing season runs from January to September. The hunt involves seal catching by seagoing sealing boats on the Arctic ice shelf, and seal hunting on the coast and islands of mainland Norway. The latter is carried out by small groups of licenced hunters shooting seals from land and using small boats to retrieve the catch.
In 2005, Norway began offering seal hunting as a tourist attraction. In 2006, 17,037 seals (including 13,390 harp and 3,647 hooded seals) were harvested. In 2007 the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs stated that up to 13.5 million Norwegian krone (ca 2.6 mill. US dollar) would be given in funding, to vessels in the 2007 Norwegian seal hunt.
All Norwegian sealing vessels are required to carry a qualified veterinary inspector on board. Norwegian sealers are required to pass a shooting test each year before the season starts, using the same weapon and ammunition as they would on the ice. Likewise they have to pass a hakapik test.
Adult seals that are more than one year old must be shot in the head with expanding bullets, and can not be clubbed to death. The hakapik shall be used to ensure that the animal is dead. This is done by crushing the skull of the shot adult seal with the short end of the hakapik, before the long spike is thrust deep into the animal's brain. The seal shall then be bled by making an incision from its jaw to the end of its sternum. The killing and bleeding must be done on the ice, and live animals may never be brought onboard the ship. Young seals may be killed using just the hakapik, but only in the before mentioned manner, i.e. they need not be shot.
Seals that are in the water and seals with young may not be killed, and the use of traps, artificial lighting, aeroplanes or helicopters is forbidden.
The hakapik may only be used by certified seal-catchers (fangstmenn) operating in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean and not by coastal seal-hunters. All coastal seal-hunters must be pre-approved by the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries and have to pass a large game hunting test.
In 2007 the European Food Safety Agency confirmed that the animals are put to death faster and more humanely in the Norwegian sealing than in large game hunting on land.
In Norway in 2004, only Rieber worked with sealskin and seal oil. In 2001, the biggest producer of raw seal oil, was Canada. (Two percent of the raw oil was processed and sold in Canadian health stores.) Rieber had the majority of all distribution of raw seal oil in the world market, but there was no demand for seal oil. From 1995 to 2005 Rieber annually received between 2 and 3 million Norwegian krone in subsidy. In a 2003–2004 parliamentary report, it says that CG Rieber Skinn is the only company in the world that delivers skin from bluebacks. Most of the skins processed by Rieber, have been imported from abroad, mainly from Canada. Only a small portion is from the Norwegian hunt. Of the processed skin, 5 percent is sold in Norway, the rest is exported to the Russian and Asian market.
Fortuna Oils AS (established in 2004) is a 100% owned subsidiary of GC Rieber. They get the majority of their raw oil imported from Canada. They also have access to raw oil from the Norwegian hunt.
The Russian seal hunt has not been well monitored since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The quota in 1998 was 35,000 animals. There have been reports that many whitecoat pups are not properly killed and are transported, while injured, to processing areas. In January 2000, a bill to ban seal hunting was passed by the Russian parliament by 273 votes to 1, but was vetoed by President Vladimir Putin.
On September 21, 2007 in Arhangelsk, the Norwegian company GC Rieber Skinn AS, proposed a joint Russian–Norwegian seal hunting project. The campaign was carried out from one hunt boat supplied by GS Rieber skinn AS in 2007, lasted 2 weeks and brought in 40 000 roubles per Russian hunter. GS Rieber skinn AS declared a plan to order 20 boats and donate them to the Pomor. CG Rieber Skinn AS, in 2007 established a daughter company in Arkhangelsk, called GC Rieber Skinn Pomor'e Lic. (GC Rieber Skinn Pomorje).
The Norwegian company Polardrift AS, in 2007, had plans to establish a company in Russia, and operate under Russian flag, in close cooperation with GC Rieber Skinn Pomor'e.
Canada has become the center of the sealing debate because of the comparatively large size of its hunt.
According to recent studies done by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the hakapik, when used properly, kills the animal quickly and painlessly. However, the aforementioned CVMA report also urges "continued attention to this hunt" due to nine types of "violations and abuses." The Royal Commission on Seals and the Sealing Industry in Canada, also known as the Malouf Commission, claims that properly performed clubbing is at least as humane as the methods used in commercial slaughterhouses, and according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), these studies "have consistently proven that the club or hakapik is an efficient tool designed to kill the animal quickly and humanely." Another study, conducted by the IFAW, an anti-sealing group, disputes these findings, however, detailing "42% of cases where there was not enough evidence of cranial injury to guarantee unconsciousness at the time of skinning, and 79% of cases where sealers did not check to ensure that the seals were dead prior to skinning them."
A study of the 2001 Canadian seal hunt conducted by five independent veterinarians, commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), concluded that, although the hakapik is a humane means of hunting, many hunters were not using it properly. This improper use, they said, was leading to "considerable and unacceptable suffering," and in 17 percent of the cases they observed, there were no detectable lesions of the skull whatsoever. In numerous other cases, the seals had to be struck multiple times before they were considered "unconscious." These findings are at odds with the CVMA report which states that Daoust, at the same time and in the same location, recorded that 86 percent of skulls had been completely crushed by strikes with hakapiks. It states further that two years previously, Bollinger and Campbell had recorded that 98.2 percent of the skulls examined were completely crushed. The IFAW is an organization founded for purpose of opposing the Canadian seal hunt and their 2001 study was not peer reviewed.
In 2005, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) commissioned the Independent Veterinarians Working Group Report. With reference to video evidence, the report states: "Perception of the seal hunt seems to be based largely on emotion, and on visual images that are often difficult even for experienced observers to interpret with certainty. While a hakapik strike on the skull of a seal appears brutal, it is humane if it achieves rapid, irreversible loss of consciousness leading to death."
The 2001 report contained a number of recommendations on how sealing could be conducted more humanely. They did not, however, recommend the disuse of the hakapik. Actually, the report recommended more training, mandatory blink-reflex tests for unconsciousness, and the cessation of open-water hunting. The report also recommended that seals be bled out immediately after clubbing, in order to ensure that the animals are unconscious when skinning begins. This is a recommendation taken in response to incidents of seals regaining consciousness after clubbing. It has also been strongly recommended that seals killed by guns to be shot to a quick death, not be wounded and left to die. The 2002 CVMA report, however, indicated an average time of 45.2 seconds between the animal being shot and a sealer killing it with a hakapik. The report concluded that this time compared well with established and acceptable humane killing practices according to the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards where acceptable times range from 45 to 300 seconds.
According to the DFO, the harp seal population is now stable at about five million animals, three times as many seals as in the 1970s. They say that Canada's annual quota of 325,000 harp seals, and an additional 10,000 harp seal allowance for new Aboriginal initiatives, personal use, and Arctic hunts, does not significantly impact the harp seal population. Protestors respond that this figure represents only a fraction of the total number of seals killed, because many seals' bodies fall into the water or under the ice and are not counted. The CVMA has replied that this is untrue for the Canadian seal hunt, and that the Canadian seals that have been "struck and lost" is less than five percent (16,250 animals) of the total harvest. They suggest that this is because, in Canada, the majority of seals are killed on the ice, not in the sea.
Greenpeace has further stated that the quota is an unreliable estimate of the total kill, not only because of "struck and lost" statistics, but also because seals with pelt damage are discarded and not accounted for.
Animal welfare advocates and organizations such as PETA, object to the use of real fur when many synthetic "faux fur" alternatives are available. Fur advocates claim that faux fur does not compare to real fur's superior warmth and style. They also claim that it is a renewable resource and synthetic fur is a petroleum based product and can release highly toxic prussic acid into the environment.
The main issue that animal rights groups have with fur is the method by which the fur is obtained. The process of clubbing seals is considered cruel and with reports of some animals being skinned alive.
According to Canadian authorities, the value of the 2004 seal harvest was $16.5 million CAD, which significantly contributes to seal manufacturing companies, and for several thousand fishermen and First Nations peoples. For some sealers, they claim, proceeds from the hunt make up a third of their annual income. Critics, however, say that this represents only a tiny fraction of the $600-million Newfoundland fishing industry. Sealing opponents also say that $16.5 million is insignificant, compared to the funding required to regulate and subsidize the hunt. For 1995 and 1996 there are confirmed reports that The Department of Fisheries and Oceans encouraged maximum utilization of harvested seals through a $0.20 per pound meat subsidy. The level of subsidy totalled $650,000 in 1997, $440,000 in 1998 and $250,000 in 1999. There were no meat subsidies in 2000. Some critics, such as the McCartneys (see below), have suggested that promoting that area as an eco-tourism site would be far more lucrative than the annual harvest.
In March 2005, Greenpeace asked DFO to "dispel the myth that seals are hampering the recovery of cod stocks." In doing so, they implied that the seal hunt is, at least in part, a cull designed to increase cod stocks. Cod fishing has traditionally been a key part of the Atlantic fishery, and an important part of the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans have responded that there is no connection between the annual seal harvest and the cod fishery, and that the seal hunt is "established on sound conservation principles."
Many animal-protection groups encourage people to petition against the harvest. Respect for Animals and Humane Society International believe the hunt will be ended only by the financial pressure of a boycott of Canadian seafood. In 2005, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) called for such a boycott in the United States.
Protesters frequently use images of whitecoats, despite Canada's ban on the commercial hunting of suckling pups. The HSUS explains this by saying that images of the legally hunted "ragged jackets" are nearly indistinguishable from those of whitecoats. Also, they state that according to official DFO kill reports, 97% percent of the estimated million harp seals killed in the last four years have been under three months old, and the majority of these are less than one month old. 
On March 26, 2006, seven protesters were arrested in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for violating the terms of their observer permits. By law, observers must maintain a ten-meter distance between themselves and the sealers. In the same month, as part of a counter-protest, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams encouraged people in the province to boycott Costco after the retailer decided to stop carrying seal-oil capsules. Costco stated that politics played no role in their decision to remove the capsules, and on April 4 that year, they were again being sold in Costco stores.
The law was approved by the Council of the European Union without debate on July 27, 2009. Denmark, Romania, and Austria abstained. The Canadian government responded to the move by stating that it will take the European Union to the World Trade Organization if the ban does not exempt Canada. Canadian Inuits from Nunavut territory have opposed the ban and lobbied European Parliament members against it. The legislation banning seal products is likely to come into effect before the beginning of the hunting season in 2010.
Numerous celebrities have opposed the commercial seal hunt, including Richard Dean Anderson, Kim Basinger, Juliette Binoche, Sir Paul McCartney, Heather Mills, Pamela Anderson, Martin Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Paris Hilton, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Rutger Hauer, Brigitte Bardot, Ed Begley, Jr., Farley Mowat, Linda Blair, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jet, The Vines, Pink, The Darkness, Good Charlotte, and Animal Collective.
In March 2006, Brigitte Bardot traveled to Ottawa to protest the hunt, though the Prime Minister turned down the request for a meeting. During the same month, Paul McCartney and Heather Mills McCartney toured the Gulf of St. Lawrence's sealing grounds, and spoke out against the seal hunt, including as guests on Larry King Live, where the two debated with Danny Williams, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In 1978, Marine ecologist Jacques Cousteau criticized the focus on the seal hunt, arguing that it is entirely emotional. "We have to be logical. We have to aim our activity first to the endangered species. Those who are moved by the plight of the harp seal could also be moved by the plight of the pig - the way they are slaughtered is horrible."