MOSCOW, OTTAWA––Russian minister of natural resources Yury Trutnyev on March 11, 2009 told the world that Russia has halted hunting seals under one year old on the frozen White Sea.
“This bloody hunting is from now on banned in our country, as in most developed countries,” Trutnyev told media.
Trutnyev described the ban as “an important measure to preserve Russian biodiversity.” The recent White Sea quota of about 35,000 seals per year was about a tenth the size of recent Atlantic Canadian sealing quotas, but amounted to a third of the White Sea seal population. The White Sea seal herd has reportedly declined by 95% since it was first surveyed in 1928. However, the first herd estimate, produced in the early years of the Communist era to assess the potential for economic expolitation, may have been grossly exaggerated.
Marine biologist Masha Vorontsova, a longtime critic of the White Sea seal hunt, called the ban “a fantastic achievement.” Vorontsova heads Moscow office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“Momentum toward the ban built,” recalled a written statement from the Moscow-based animal rights group VITA, “after VITA members in March 2008 took a delegation of Russian celebrities to witness the annual seal pup massacre. Countless TV clips that followed the event led to the Russian ban,” said VITA. Early indications of an eventual positive response from the Kremlin included an award presented to VITA by the Russian ministry of natural resources for producing the Best Ecological Project of 2008.
Continued VITA, “On January 16, 2009,” nearly two months before Trutnyev’s announcement, “the Federal Agency for Fisheries issued an order banning the slaughter. This decision was confirmed by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.”
The Russian state newspaper Rossisskaya Gazeta reported that Putin on February 26, 2009 told a cabinet meeting that he personally considers seal hunting a bloody industry that “clearly should have been banned long ago.”
Trutnyev disclosed the end of the White Sea seal hunt a week after the European Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee on March 2, 2009 voted 25-7 to prohibit the import of seal products into the 27 European Union member nations. The bill exempts seal products made for cultural, educational or ceremonial purposes by the Inuit people of northern Canada.
The full European Parliament is to vote on the ban at a April 1 plenary session in Brussels. “The measure also has to be approved by EU governments before it can be implemented,” explained Oliver Moore of the Toronto Globe & Mail.
“I’m very disappointed that elected officials in Europe are going against World Trade Organization rulings and legal opinions,” Rob Cahill of the Canadian Fur Institute told media.
Cahill hinted that Canada will appeal to the WTO to try to overturn a European Union ban on seal pelts, if the ban is adopted.
As if in defiance of world opinion, Canadian fisheries minister Gail Shea on March 21, 2009 increased the 2009 Atlantic Canada sealing quota to 338,200, 55,000 more than in 2008, but 27,000 fewer than the 365,000 seals who were killed in 2004, the highest total of the past half century.
Putin’s condemnation of sealing came as both an indirect endorsement of the proposed European Union legislation, and a slap at Canada.
“The words of a man often accused of using military force to quash dissent in areas of Russia with separatist leanings clearly packed a punch and they have seemingly left Canada even more isolated,” wrote Michael McKiernan of the Toronto-based National Post. “Although Putin has yet to indicate whether his sympathies extend far enough to copy the European Union approach and ban imports, his stance has pushed Canada further into the proverbial corner.
“Anti-sealing advocates dispute the size of the Russian market for Canadian seal pelts, but a Newfoundland processor said in 2007 that the country was the leading customer for his products, with China not far behind,” wrote Moore of the Globe & Mail.
VITA noted that “The ban applies only to baby seals. Now, on the eve of the hunting season for greycoats, young animals whose coats are no longer white, VITA and other animal protection activists are determined to obtain a ban on the commercial killing of all young seals.” With this aim, VITA and the Living Nature Club on March 10, 2009 organized a flight for journalists to the White Sea.
“We want the journalists to see for themselves that seal watching is a unique kind of tourism which is already successful and in terms of jobs is an effective alternative to the two-week slaughter,” explained VITA coordinator Alexey Skrobanskiy of Arkhangels, the major seaport on the White Sea.
Added VITA president Irina Novozhilova, “We are delighted with the government ban; it is an unprecedented victory for public opinion. The first step has now been taken. However, we want to point out to the government that the commercial slaughter of greycoats is of absolutely no use as a way of ensuring an income for local residents; indeed, not only is it unethical, it is also unprofitable.”
Explained the VITA written statement, “The commercial slaughter of seals in the White Sea is carried out nowadays by Norwegian companies with the financial backing of Norwegian investors. The local Russian workers are paid a pittance. It seems to us that Russia has better things to do than supply the people of Norway with employment and Norwegian businessmen with profits.”
Unable to gain a Parliamentary majority without significant support from Atlantic Canada, all major Canadian political parties have strongly backed the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt since it was revived after a 10-year suspension in 1994.
Noting growing global opposition to the seal hunt, however, Canadian Senator Mac Harb on March 3, 2009 broke ranks with his own Liberal Party to introduce a private member s bill to halt sealing. The bill quickly died from lack of a second.
“There was silence. Total silence! I was amazed that not one of my colleagues, from any one of the political parties, would even want to debate the issue,” Harb told A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times.
But the Harb bill had political fallout. On March 5, 2009, the ruling Conservative Party conceded that it had improperly used federal funding to distribute three press releases, two of them from fisheries minister Gail Shea, attacking an alleged Liberal “hidden agenda” against the seal hunt.
World Society for the Protection of Animals board president Dominic Bellemare helped to form the Conservative Party via merger of two older parties in 2003, and ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Conservative in 2008. However, while WSPA officially opposes the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt, Bellemare has apparently never opposed it on the public record, and has refused to say whether he supports or opposes it in response to questions from ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton.
Animal Rights Activist Network founder John Carmody, of Limerick, Ireland, on March 17, 2009 hoped to have ended waffling by Irish environment minister John Gormley on the proposed European Union sealing ban. “The Irish government have today signaled their support for a total E.U. trade ban on seal products, with no loopholes and no exemptions,” e-mailed Carmody, after orchestrating a week-long campaign of e-mails, letters, and calls asking Gormley to commit to supporting the European Union anti-sealing bill as written.
Approximately 100 sealing opponents organized by the Spanish animal rights group Equanimal on March 15, 2009 held a nude and nearly nude protest in central Madrid to rally support for the proposed E.U. seal product import ban.
Other anti-sealing demonstrations were held as far away as Multan, Pakistan, reported Animal Save Movement Pakistan president Khalid Qureshi.
Anticipating that the European Union bill will pass, and that the importance of China as the last remaining major purchaser of Canadian seal pelts will increase, the Hong Kong SPCA and Humane Society International in March 2009 sent actress and singer Karen Mok Manwai to witness the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt.
“This predictably infuriated the Hong Kong Fur Federation,” reported Hazel Parry of the South China Morning Post.
John F. Robins, campaign consultant for the Scottish organization Animal Concern, meanwhile sought to draw attention to seal hunting along the coast of Scotland.
“As many as 5,000 seals are legally killed every year by Scottish aquacultural and fishery interests,” said Robins, seeking to add language to a pending omnibus Marine Bill that would prohibit killing seals in Scotland and Scottish waters.
“The Scottish Government wants to use the new Marine Bill to tinker with the situation and bring in a few rules regarding the shooting of seals,” Robins explained. “We only require one rule and that is to make it illegal to shoot seals. The Scottish seal slaughter shames our nation and must be stopped.”