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Hunters gather pelts as the annual East Coast seal hunt starts in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence around Quebec's Iles de la Madeleine on Monday, March 23, 2009. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press) ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

There are few issues more controversial in Canada and around the world than the annual seal hunt that takes place in the waters and on the ice floes off Atlantic Canada.

Quick facts
  • Harp seal quota for 2009 hunt: 280,000.
  • Estimated size of the seal herd off Atlantic Canada: 5.6 million.
  • Price for best seal pelts in 2006: $105.
  • Price for best seal pelts in 2007: $62.
  • Price for best seal pelts in 2008: Over $30.
  • Expected price for seal pelts in 2009: $15.
(Source: DFO, NuTan Furs Inc.)

The bloody images, the heated rhetoric, the impassioned defences all combine in a familiar rite that pits governments and sealers against animal rights groups.

Few facts in this debate go unchallenged. All sides agree on where and when. But the answers to how, why, and even how many aren't as clear.

Even the language is chosen carefully. Hunt or slaughter. Sea mammals or baby seals. Cherished tradition or economic disaster. Cod-eating nuisance or adorable innocent.

The images of the hunt are even more powerful, and seal hunt opponents know it. Most people find the pictures difficult to watch, but supporters say the same kind of thing happens in slaughterhouses — places where cameras aren't allowed.

Here are a few of the questions swirling around the debate and how the big stakeholders respond.

Where does the Atlantic seal hunt take place?

The hunt usually opens in March in the "Gulf" areas around the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island. The main hunt on the so-called "front" usually begins in April off the east coast of Newfoundland. It's pretty much over by May.

The total allowable catch for harp seals is split between two areas: 70 per cent for the waters off Newfoundland and 30 per cent for the St. Lawrence Gulf region.

How many are they allowed to hunt?

There are federal quotas for three types of seals: harp seals, hooded seals and grey seals. Most of the hunt is for harp seals.

The 2009 harp seal total allowable catch has been set at 280,000, up slightly from the previous year.

That's down from the 2006 quota of 325,000, and about the same as the quota set from 1997 to 2002.

The catch in 2001 was 226,000. In 2000, it was just 92,000 seals.

Seal hunters do not always catch as many seals as they are allowed and sometimes they are allowed to exceed the pre-season quota. 

The 2009 total allowable catch is 8,200 for hooded seals and 50,000 for grey seals.

What about those cute whitecoat seals?

Whitecoats are newborn harp seals. Most Canadians can recall pictures of whitecoated seal pups being clubbed. The images were so inflammatory that Canada banned all hunting of whitecoats and bluebacks (otherwise known as hooded seals) in 1987.

You'd never know that from some of the anti-sealing groups that still prominently display pictures of whitecoats on their websites and in fundraising materials. One site even features a downloadable video of people hugging whitecoats. The reality is that whitecoats can't be hunted anymore.

It's also true that young harp seals lose their white coats (and their protection) at about 12 to 14 days of age. After that, they're fair game for hunters, although they're usually about 25 days old before they're hunted. Most harp seals taken are under the age of three months. Young yes, whitecoats no.

Are seals skinned alive?

This is a frequent accusation levelled by hunt opponents. The International Fund for Animal Welfare says seals are routinely clubbed or shot and left to suffer on the ice until they're clubbed later.

The IFAW also charges that seals are often "skinned before being rendered fully unconscious" and said its observers found that few sealers check for a blinking reflex to confirm brain death before skinning begins. Similar "skinning alive" accusations have also been made by other groups, with many citing studies claiming that up to 45 per cent of seals are "skinned alive."

A 2002 report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that "the large majority of seals taken during this hunt … are killed in an acceptably humane manner."

This study found that 98 per cent of hunted seals it examined had been killed properly. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cites this study among others as proof that the hunt opponents are wrong in their accusations of widespread cruelty.

Regarding the "skinning alive" charge, the DFO says appearances can be deceiving. "Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed," the DFO says. "However, seals have a swimming reflex that is active, even after death. This reflex falsely appears as though the animal is still alive when it is clearly dead — similar to the reflex in chickens."

Furthermore, the DFO says the club, or hakapik, used by many sealers is "an efficient tool" that kills "quickly and humanely." The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing in Canada found that clubbing, when properly performed, is at least as humane as killing methods in commercial slaughterhouses. Opponents say clubbing often isn't "properly performed."

The federal government acknowledges that it has laid more than 200 charges against sealers since 1996, but argues that shows it's serious about enforcing its regulations.

How does the seal hunt benefit Canada?

The economic value of the seal hunt is another one of those things that is open to interpretation. The federal government says the landed value of seals exceeded $16.5 million in 2005, providing a "significant" source of income for thousands of sealers — benefiting them and their families at a time when, according to the DFO, "other fishing options are unavailable, or limited at best, in many remote, coastal communities."

Quick facts:

The European Union typically accounts for about 15 per cent of Canada's seal exports.

In 2007, Canada exported more than $13 million worth of seal products, including meat, oil and skins.

South Korea and Japan were the largest consumers of seal meat, while China, South Korea and the United States bought the most seal fat and oil from Canada.

When it comes to seal skins, about 80 per cent are sent to Norway.

Source: 2007 data from Department of Fisheries and Oceans

The DFO says the 2005 seal catch ranked fifth in value of all the species it monitors, after snow crab, shrimp, lobster, and cod.

The DFO also says the 2006 seal catch was one of the most profitable in memory, a combination of a higher allowable catch and a high price for pelts. Since then, however, the total allowable catch has been cut by 100,000 seals and the price for the best pelts has dropped from $105 in 2006 to an expected $15 in 2009.

Still, seal amounts to only a fraction of the $600-million Newfoundland fishery. But for some sealers, it represents up to one-third of their annual income. And in a province with jobless rates north of 15 per cent, they say that means even more.

The DFO and Newfoundland and Labrador estimate that around 5,000 to 6,000 people derive some income from sealing, about one per cent of the provincial population.

The governments argue that's a substantial number for rural communities, and comparable to other industries.

"Although sealing may seem to be a minor industry within the larger economy, many locally-important industries share this characteristic," the DFO website states. "For example, crop production and forestry each account for less than one per cent of Canadian GDP, but their local economic importance is undisputable."

Not so fast, say the anti-sealing groups. The IFAW describes the contribution of sealing to Newfoundland's GDP as "trivial" and says after costs and indirect subsidies are taken into account (patrolling the hunt, upgrading plants, promoting the hunt, developing new markets for seal products and supporting research to find new products), Canadians would "likely find that the hunt actually costs the Canadian taxpayer money."

It's a pointless activity, in the view of the IFAW, which says, "the only economically valuable part of the seal is its fur, a non-essential luxury product that no one really needs."

The DFO flatly denies that it subsidizes the seal hunt. It also denies charges that the seal hunt is not sustainable. It says Canada's seal population is "healthy and abundant" at about 5.6 million animals and triple what it was in the 1970s.

But the IFAW says the hunt has become a "cull, designed more to achieve short-term political objectives than those of a biologically sustainable hunt." For one thing, the group says Canada's management plan fails to account for wide variations in the natural mortality rates among seal pups.

A critique from Greenpeace also said the quotas are "scientifically indefensible" because they don't take into account the actual number of seals killed in the hunt — including those that are "struck and lost," or discarded because of pelt damage.

Don't seals eat cod?

Yes, harp seals do eat cod, among other things. But both sides now appear to agree that seals and cod can coexist. In March 2005, Greenpeace called on then federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan to "dispel the myth that seals are hampering the recovery of cod stocks." A letter from Greenpeace said, "the DFO has been a partner in perpetuating this myth."

But the DFO says sealing opponents are setting up a straw man and then knocking it down. The federal government says anti-sealing groups are wrong to suggest that it's allowing the hunt to help cod stocks recover.

"The commercial seal quota is established based on sound conservation principles, not an attempt to assist in the recovery of groundfish stocks," the DFO says. "Seals eat cod, but seals also eat other fish that prey on cod."

What is made out of the seal?

For hundreds of years, seals have been hunted for food, the lamp and cooking fuel made from their oil and their warm pelts. Seal products nowadays include leather, meat for animal and human consumption and seal oil, which is rich in Omega-3.