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New rules to protect seals

Those beseeching eyes were impossible to avoid. In the 1970s images of fuzzy white seal pups were everywhere as activists fought to end the seal hunt in Canada. Seals have been harvested for generations on the floes of the Atlantic coast, but concerns about killing methods and conserving the herd virtually ended the practice in the 1980s. The threat of too many cod-eating seals resurrected the hunt, and today anti-cruelty activists monitor an industry that's at its strongest in decades.

No longer can a sealer skin a live seal, or use a club too small to kill with one blow. These two regulations and a host of others were introduced after a documentary about the seal hunt generated a huge public outcry in 1964. Now, as the seal hunt season is underway, CBC Radio's Assignment talks with Brian Davies, a representative of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. He observed as fisheries officers enforced the new rules.
• A bloody documentary about the seal hunt called Les grands phoques de la banquise (Seals of the Floes) was broadcast on Radio-Canada, CBC's French-language television service, in May 1964. Produced by Artek Films, it depicted a hunter skinning a live seal on Quebec's Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
• The controversy exploded internationally when an article about the hunt, inspired by the documentary, was published in a German-language Montreal newspaper. It was picked up by the press in Germany and spread through Europe.

• The Canadian government responded to the resulting protest by consulting with members of the sealing industry, humane societies and others. The result was seal protection regulations requiring licensing of sealers and vessels, establishing a seven-week season for the hunt and outlawing the killing of adult seals in breeding areas. A quota limiting the take of harp seal pups in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was set at 50,000.

• According to a 1966 article in Canadian Audubon magazine, a sealer in the Radio-Canada documentary later filed a sworn statement claiming he had been paid to skin a live seal before the cameras. He also said he had done it before the official start of the sealing season.

• One of the first vocal opponents of the hunt was Dr. Harry Lillie, who first observed the seal hunt while working as the medical officer on a sealing ship in 1949. Lillie was a Scottish-born surgeon and conservationist who had already criticized whale hunting methods.
• In 1955 Lillie filmed the Newfoundland hunt and distributed copies to humane societies across the continent. He also wrote a book, The Path Through Penguin City, criticizing the waste and cruelty of the seal hunt.

• The majority of seals taken in the hunt, past and present, are harp seals (Phoca groenlandica). These are named for the pattern on the fur of the adult - a black wishbone-like shape resembling an ancient harp.
• Young harp seal pups, or "whitecoats," were once the primary prey of seal hunters. Before the Second World War, 90 per cent of the Newfoundland catch was whitecoats, prized for their soft, white fur.

• Whitecoats were most often taken at between six and ten days old, when their fat yielded the greatest amount of oil.
• Seal pups are whitecoats from birth until about two weeks of age. Then moulting begins and their fur becomes coarser - a stage at which they are called "raggedy jackets."
• Hooded seals (Cystophora cristata) are hunted in much smaller numbers. The pups, known as "bluebacks," yield more fat and a larger pelt than whitecoats.

• The commercial seal hunt in Canada mainly takes place in two regions: the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (or Magdalen Islands) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and off Newfoundland's northeast coast - an area known as "the Front."
• Each spring, ice forms great sheets in these regions and female seals surface to give birth.
• Sealers on the Front work from large vessels, but hunters known as "landsmen" in the Îles-de-la-Madeleine use smaller boats or travel on foot to the ice.
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: April 2, 1965
Guest(s): Brian Davies
Host: Ross Ingram, Bill McNeil
Duration: 4:10

Last updated: April 3, 2014

Page consulted on April 3, 2014

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