Joe Raedle/Getty Images Seal hunters drag a dead seal to their boat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a 2008 photo.

“Here you are trying to manoeuvre through the ice — you got to watch those big ice pans — and a big swell in the water … the boat was moving back and forth … you got to watch how you’re getting through because they can throw together and put a hole right on through the boat, really — it has happened — and then you’re trying to get a shot at the seal at the same time and with this buzzing over you.”

Keith Bath, 67, first encountered “this buzzing” of an animal-rights helicopter during last year’s seal hunt off the coast of St. Anthony, N.L.

Bath, who now lives in La Scie, N.L., has been sealing for 50 years.

Last year’s catch “amounted to close to $300,000,” Bath estimates. Each of his seven crew members receive 9 per cent of the cut and fuel, his biggest cost, runs around $20,000. After expenses, the hunt makes up 40 per cent of his annual income.

His boat landed roughly 7,600 seals in two weeks, the majority of which were beater seals roughly 25 days old. Hunting younger seals, or whitecoats, has been banned since 1987.

In the vast majority of those 7,600 deaths, Bath says he used a .222-, a .223- or .22250-, or a .243-calibre rifle with a scope. Bullets cost just over a dollar each, he says.

Keith Bath“Not many seals are killed with a hakapik from a longliner (65-footer),” he says of his vessel, which tows a speedboat used by the rest of his crew to collect the seals from the ice. “Good sealers like we are — you know, most everyone — try to make sure that they got a good shot and a head shot … and if we sees that it’s crippled, we just gives it another bullet.”

Bath is one of 4,000 fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador certified by the Professional Fish Harvesters Certification Board, which trains sealers in the humane killing of the animals, the regulatory process and proper handling procedures.

That certification, coupled with monitoring by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), ensures a humane hunt, according to Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association.

Pinhorn balked at the World Trade Organization’s recent decision to uphold the European Union ban on Canadian seal products based on the necessity “to protect public morals.”

“The decision, based on ethics and morality, is an insult to all our sealers,” Pinhorn says, adding the reason sealers are targeted by animal-rights groups is “because it’s an easy thing to do. They just lucked into the imagery of red, intense blood on pure, white ice.

“They’ll lie, they’ll cheat, they’ll use deceit — because the people making these decisions (at WTO and EU) know absolutely nothing about what it means to live in Mary’s Harbour, or St. Anthony, or Twillingate, and earn a living from the ocean.”

Beyond that, the regulations are heavily enforced, he says. All boats are subject to inspection.

Bath says in 2012 one such DFO officer observed his practices.

“I try everything in the world to make sure that it’s done as clean as we can do it,” Bath says. “You can make a mistake, anyone can make a mistake. But 90 per cent, I’d say, of (those who) goes out there try to do it as good as they can, have as clean a go as possible.”

Jonathan Russell speaks to Keith Bath on how to humanely hunt a seal.

The other side of the ice

Sheryl Fink has observed the seal hunt for 11 years, both in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the eastern coast of Newfoundland, known as the Front.

She says she went to observe “the cruelty, the inhumane killings.”

Sheryl Fink“It’s allowable to hook a seal in the face,” said Fink, Seal Campaign director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “An animal is allowed to be hooked in the face by the gaffe and dragged to the boat without it being unconscious.”

The decision last week by the panel of the World Trade Organization was a victory for IFAW and other animal-rights groups.

The 27-member state European Union is now part of 34 countries that ban Canadian seal products, including the U.S. (1972), Russia (2011) and most recently Taiwan (2013).

IFAW and other non-governmental organizations like the International Humane Society submitted an Amicus Brief with their own research and findings referred to by the European Commission in its defence of the seal ban. IFAW was also consulted by the EU as a stakeholder alongside the sealing industry to develop and implement the regulations of the EU ban on seal products, which came into force Aug. 20, 2010.

“This is significant in that it’s just another international body that’s looked at the seal hunt … and they said seal bans are OK,” Fink said of the WTO’s ruling, adding it’s another indication the world does not want seal products.

Haven’t organizations like the IFAW created a negative view of seal products?

“It’s very easy to blame the NGOs and say that we’ve brain-washed everyone — and I only wish we were that powerful, that we’ve brain-washed the WTO, and the Russian Federation, and the Taiwan, I kind of wished that were true,” she said laughing. “I think the reality is people just don’t want seal products; this just isn’t a product that is wanted or needed in the 21st century, just like we don’t do commercial whaling anymore. I think the time has come where commercial sealing is going to be disappearing.”

Protecting ‘public morals’ 

The World Trade Organization decision last week to uphold the European ban on Canadian seal products as “necessary to protect public morals” marked a breakthrough in animal-welfare cases, according to a professor of International Law.

Robert Howse, who teaches at New York University, says that breakthrough is because the WTO panel based its decision on factual findings versus legal findings. They differ in one key respect: A legal finding can be appealed to the appellate body — a factual finding cannot.

What Canada did claim was that concern about the seal hunt was, on the facts, not a matter of public morality, but the emotional, eccentric opinions of one section of the European public,” Howse said.

“(But) the EU presented evidence that I think is compelling: That you can’t have a humane seal hunt in Canada, and the reason you can’t is that the conditions under which the hunt occurs are such that it’s really not possible to ensure and monitor that humane hunting techniques are being used.

“In other situations of animal welfare (such as slaughterhouses), it would usually be possible to address moral concerns without a ban, by merely requiring that standards of humane treatment be monitored and enforced.”

The WTO also ruled, however, the ban does not apply to Inuit or indigenous communities, “because an advantage granted by the European Union to seal products originating in Greenland (specifically, its Inuit population) is not accorded immediately and unconditionally to the like products originating in Canada.”

The Canadian government said it would appeal the ban, but Howse said Canada has little to win.

“Of course the Canadian government is going to appeal, but the fact is that they’re not going to win anything of value.”

Where are the sealing grounds?

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