ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland; Iqaluit, Nunatsiaq ––Ruling against an appeal by Canada and Norway against the European Union ban on imports of seal products, the World Trade Organization may have sunk the future economic prospects of the Atlantic Canada seal hunt. But Canadian sealers appear to be more inclined to go down with their ships than to give up the annual seal-clubbing and shooting orgy.
Bracing for the WTO affirmation of the original verdict against the seal hunt issued in November 2013, Atlantic Canadian and Far North news coverage of sealing during the 2014 hunt split between amplifying denunciations of the 2013 decision and remembering how the sealing industry survived disasters in 1914.
The WTO appellate panel endorsed the November 2013 WTO findings that the seal product import ban “fulfills the objective of addressing the EU public moral concerns on seal welfare,” and that “no alternative measure has been demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution” to satisfying those concerns.
The WTO had allowed governments permitting seal hunts an opening to redefine the killing as “marine resource management,” but those governments would then have to demonstrate a need for such “management” that would be persuasive to international regulators. Otherwise, the November 2013 WTO ruling found against the seal product import ban only when applied to “seal products derived from hunts conducted by Inuit or indigenous communities,” which the WTO said are “not designed and applied in an even-handed manner.”
Seal hunt opponents mostly hailed the WTO verdicts of November 2013 and May 2014 as clear victories.
“This is a wonderful day for seals,” International Fund for Animal Welfare Canadian wildlife programs director Sheryl Fink told Bonnie Belec of the St. John’s Telegram. “The governments of Canada and Norway used every technical argument they could to try to force products from a cruel and unnecessary commercial seal hunts on Europeans. But reason and compassion have triumphed. What’s more, “ Fink added, “this positive ruling provides the WTO with new relevancy by showing it is capable of fairly addressing matters of public moral concern in the future.”
Agreed Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, “This is a critically important validation of the United States’ and other countries’ right to crack down on the global trade in products of animal cruelty.”
“The ban will need some amendments to make it WTO compliant,” acknowledged Humane Society International/Canada executive director Rebecca Aldworth, to Sue Bailey of Canadian Press. “However, those are very small amendments that will happen, I think, very quickly. And ultimately the ban can stay in place much as it is. We hope,” Aldworth added, “that with this ruling the Canadian government will stop trying to prop up the outdated and cruel commercial seal hunt and instead invest in branding and labeling Inuit seal products so that they can once again resume access to the EU market.”
One influential Atlantic Canadian voice who would likely have agreed died of cancer on April 16, 2014, five weeks before the WTO appellate verdict was released. Longtime Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio host John Furlong, 63, contributed for the last time to the CBC Radio Noon show on March 3, 2014. Furlong had from 2005 to 2013 coordinated CBC coverage of sealing, as host of the CBC Fisheries Broadcast. Since 2012, Furlong had become outspokenly critical of sealing, continued only through the infusion of enormous government subsidies. The Costco store in St. John’s contributed more to the Atlantic Canadian economy in a good weekend than the seal hunt did all year, Furlong argued, calling subsidized sealing “not fair to the tradition of sealers, not fair to Newfoundlanders, and not fair to the environment.”
But after the WTO appellate verdict was announced, Canadian trade minister Ed Fast, fisheries minister Gail Shea, environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, Canadian Sealers Association president Frank Pinhorn and Dion Dakins, chief executive of Carino Processing Ltd., each issued defiant statements. Carino, a Norwegian-owned company, has long been the only buyer of Canadian seal pelts. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans set a 2014 sealing quota of 400,000 pelts, but Carino bought only 50,000, at an average price of about $35.
The pro-sealing statements amplified the myth that opposition to the Atlantic Canada seal hunt and the methods used in it only started after then-New Brunswick SPCA inspector Brian Davies started the Save the Seals Fund in 1960, which became IFAW in 1968. Also part of the myth is that French film star Brigitte Bardot prominently denounced the seal hunt in 1977 only to try to revive her acting career––four years after she had retired from acting to focus on animal welfare work.
In truth, Bardot had been appalled by Scottish surgeon Harry D. Lillie’s documentation of the 1955 hunt, and first spoke out against it that same year, at the height of her acting fame.
Opposition began before 1900
William Hornaday, best known as founding director of the New York Zoological Society, mentioned ecological and humane opposition to the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt in Hornaday’s American Natural History (1900).
Jack London in The Sea Wolf (1904) made the sadistic sealing captain Wolf Larson his most memorable villain. London had witnessed seal-clubbing in Pacific waters; he was also aware of the Atlantic Canadian hunt, and was an active supporter of the humane movement, lending his name to the Jack London Clubs sponsored by the American Humane Education Society.
The March 1933 edition of The National Humane Review, published by the American Humane Association, recalled that sealing in both Atlantic and northern Pacific waters brought intensive humane protest before 1911, as “No cruelty was too horrible for the seal hunters.”
The pioneering ichthyologist David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), was an early and outspoken opponent of seal-clubbing, as was Sir George Baden-Powell (1847-1898), who helped instill in his younger brother Robert the love of nature that inspired him to found the Boy Scouts.
The first wave of protest against sealing subsided after then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1911 endorsed into law a set of fur seal conservation measures that 62 years later were combined with whale and dolphin protection legislation to become the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
But contrary to widespread impression, encouraged by the sealing industry, the 1911 law did nothing to make sealing less inhumane.
251 sealers killed in 1914
The 1911 U.S. law and the outbreak of World War I appear to have distracted sealing opponents in 1914, when the sealing industry ran into opposition within Atlantic Canada itself. The episode began on March 30, 1914 when the Newfoundland left 132 sealers stranded on the ice for 53 hours during a blizzard, due to miscommunication with the Stephano. Diverted to the rescue, the Bellaventure returned to St. John’s with the remains of 69 sealers stacked on the deck and 22 surviving sealers whose feet and legs had been so severely frozen that they could not walk. The remains of eight men were not found.
The 22-year-old former Norwegian whaling ship Southern Cross, a participant in the seal hunt every year after 1901, was meanwhile last seen by the crew of the Portia near Cape Pine on March 31, 1914. Believed to have been overloaded with seal pelts, the Southern Cross carried a crew of 173.
After both federal and provincial inquiries, the Newfoundland & Labrador government in 1916 instituted safety rules for sealing ships that quelled public discomfort and enabled the seal hunt to continue. Newfoundland captain Abram Kean continued sealing for another 20 years. His crews cumulatively killed more than a million seals, for which he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1934.
Humane protest against the seal hunt revived after an exposé of it appeared in the July 1929 edition of The National Geographic. Further exposés subsequently appeared in at least five leading British magazines, and in a 1932 pamphlet entitled The Cruelties of Seal Hunting, by Sydney H. Beard, of London, England.