Furlong | Death on the ice: Time to pull the plug on the seal hunt?

Newfoundland and Labrador's historic seal hunt may well have run its course, with marginal returns and dwindling demand, writes John Furlong

The commercial seal industry is in major trouble, with collapsing markets and dwindling support

There's no question in my mind that the commercial seal hunt is probably on the way out. So does anyone care?

The value of the Newfoundland and Labrador seal hunt all last year was less than $1.5 million. One million dollars directly, with another $400,000 in food, fuel, ammunition and other related spinoffs.

That might sound like a lot of money, but a busy department store in Corner Brook or a popular gas bar on the Trans-Canada Highway would do that in a month. In fact, the Costco box store in St. John's took in $1 million in just one weekend before Christmas!

So what are we going to do about this vanishing commercial seal hunt? Despite our best efforts, despite the sealers' struggle to make the industry the most humane and dignified possible, the war has been lost.

Is it wrong to even suggest that it might be time to examine the future of the seal hunt and the contribution it makes to the Newfoundland economy?

We have promoted the cultural significance, assessed and changed the way seals are killed, and we have advertised the benefits of both seals and the hunt.

We couldn't overcome the massive public opinion juggernaut unleashed by animal rights groups. They have painted the seal hunt as cruel, barbaric, inhumane, economically feeble, and unsustainable. The world listened, and it's unlikely we can ever recover from the damage of the bad press and misinformation.

Should we not talk about that? Is it wrong to even suggest that it might be time to examine the future of the seal hunt and the contribution it makes to the Newfoundland economy?

Bleak numbers

The $1 million it generated last year is a fraction of one percent of an economy worth tens of billions of dollars. Sealers took only 40,000 seals last year. That's all the market would buy. They made about $25 a pelt. That's pretty weak when held up against the enormous black eye it gives to our province and our country on the world stage.

The Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Belarus are the latest to pull the plug on importing seal products. Even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has publicly called the hunt "a bloody industry that should have been stopped years ago."

Carino, one of the two big Newfoundland buyers, had agreed to buy 100,000 pelts this year. But that's on hold now because of the situation in Russia.

The deal to sell seal meat into China has also been stalled and no one wants to say why. 

The industry is in big trouble.

If it ends, another couple of hundred jobs in plants are gone, the seal oil capsule business would be jeopardized and the couple of hundred hard-core sealers who took part in last year's hunt would be out a couple of thousand dollars each.

Seals eat fish, by the tonne

But there are other considerations. Seals have ravenous appetites. The accepted rule of thumb is that a harp seal will eat 1.4 tonnes of fish per year.

The nine million seals out there now will eat 12 million tonnes of fish per year. If seals are not harvested, the population will keep increasing. Seals will eat cod, turbot, shrimp, crab, krill, sandlance and anything else they find. (Lobster is about the only thing they'll turn down.) When seals don't eat cod, they are eating what cod normally feed on. That spells even more trouble for the fishery.

In Namibia, where the fishery is the country's third largest economic indicator, fishermen are paid to cull 80,000 seals out of a herd that's only 700,000 strong. They do it to protect their fishery.

What about Ottawa? Well, they don't like drawing attention to the seal hunt. Ottawa has taken enough lumps internationally over the seal hunt and while they will give lip service to their support of the hunt, they won't do much else.

No summit on seals, not much talk of a seal cull, no great public initiative to figure out what to do. But what's needed is a full public discussion — or even a quiet private discussion

But let's not let it limp along like this. It's not fair to the tradition of sealers, it's not fair to Newfoundlanders, and it’s not fair to the environment.


John Furlong was a long-time journalist at CBC in St. John's. He was a producer of Here & Now, and hosted The Broadcast and Radio Noon. He died in 2014.