Canada's seal hunters return to the killing fields

On Monday, one of the biggest seal culls for 50 years will take place, thanks to the growing worldwide demand for fur. Andrew Buncombe reports from the Gulf of St Lawrence on a brutal industry and the communities it sustains

With the hand that was not holding his cigarette, Adde Theriault gestured towards the silvery-grey seal pelts piled high in a large plastic bin. "Feel it," he said. "Feel it. It is very good quality." The seal skin was cold, damp and slimy and lined with an inch or so of white blubber. It felt as one might imagine a short-haired terrier might feel, pulled dead and cold from a stagnant ditch. It certainly smelt just as bad. And in the one room of this processing plant situated on a tiny island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, itself caught between Canada and Newfoundland, there were 30,000 such stinking seal pelts. "Thirty thousand," confirmed Mr Theriault, as he pulled on his cigarette. "We have had a good season."

With the hand that was not holding his cigarette, Adde Theriault gestured towards the silvery-grey seal pelts piled high in a large plastic bin. "Feel it," he said. "Feel it. It is very good quality." The seal skin was cold, damp and slimy and lined with an inch or so of white blubber. It felt as one might imagine a short-haired terrier might feel, pulled dead and cold from a stagnant ditch. It certainly smelt just as bad. And in the one room of this processing plant situated on a tiny island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, itself caught between Canada and Newfoundland, there were 30,000 such stinking seal pelts. "Thirty thousand," confirmed Mr Theriault, as he pulled on his cigarette. "We have had a good season."

These seal skins and the bloody slaughter that preceded their processing here in the Isles de la Madeleine are at the centre of a growing international controversy over a resurgence of seal hunting in Canada that has this year grown to a scale not seen for more than half a century. Twenty years after a global outcry that essentially destroyed the international market for seal-skin products, the images of burly men clubbing baby seals on the ice floes of eastern Canada have returned, as vivid and viscerally shocking as ever.

This year, buoyed by both expanding demand for seal skin in East European countries such as Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, and by a seal population deemed to be growing, the Canadian authorities have permitted the killing of up to 350,000 baby harp seals. All but ignored by the Canadian media, the killing would have gone largely unnoticed but for the efforts of several animal rights groups that have highlighted the issue in recent weeks as the first of two annual hunts took place.

"This slaughter that everyone thinks has disappeared is back with a vengeance," said Rebecca Aldworth, a campaigner with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "We are really back at a point where the world is starting to realise that the hunt is back on. It is really gearing up again. Our campaign will continue to heat up as the hunt progresses over the next few years."

The activists have reacted with speed and savvy, aware of the power borne by images of dead baby seals with their pulverised brains seeping into the melting ice. In the US these groups have taken out full-page advertisements in major newspapers, while in Britain they have paid for cinema commercials urging film-goers not to travel to Canada.

But the instant revulsion to such images and the attendant accusations of brutality tell only part of the story - at least in the opinion of those involved either directly or indirectly in the seal hunt. Away from the graphic, red-on-white/blood-on-snow images, they say, the story of seal hunting in eastern Canada involves issues of tradition, economic survival and the conscious choice of a certain way of life. To many people in Cap-Aux-Meules, those opposed to the seal hunt are themselves guilty of an hypocrisy they refuse to admit.

Cap-Aux-Meules is the largest of the dotted outcrops that form the half-moon archipelago of islands known as the Iles de la Madeleine in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The Native American Micmac Indians originally called the islands "Menagoesenog", or "the islands brushed by the waves". The more modern and slightly less poetic name is believed to have been bestowed in honour of Madeleine Fontaine, wife of Francois Doublet de Honfleur, who was made governor or concessionaire of the French-controlled islands in 1663.

Fishing has always been a way of life here, and despite the efforts of the local authorities to promote tourism as the premier source of income, it remains so today. Fishermen on these French-speaking islands are guided by the season and by the permits they hold. Next week will see the start of the fishing season for herring; May until July is the season for lobster; September is the season for mackerel or tuna; and in the autumn or winter the men harvest farmed mussels or else they prepare their boats for next year.

But late March, when the islands are surrounded by floes, has always been the season for hunting seals with clubs. Elsewhere in Canada hunters will use rifles to take their prey, but here on the gulf's pack ice, hunters dispatch the seals with one or two blows to the head with clubs or hakapiks.

The result is not attractive. Twenty years ago when the actress Brigitte Bardot led the campaign against hunting white-furred seals that had not been weaned from their mothers, there were accusations that hunters were skinning the animals alive. Even now, with new regulations enforced by the Canadian federal authorities, the killing of a baby seal is a bloody, brutish affair. The federal department of fisheries and oceans says that after being clubbed, the dead or dying animal's nerves will still send it into convulsions, leaving the corpse quivering on the ice. The seals may no longer be white - the regulations do not permit the killing of animals that are less than three weeks old - but the images of a hunter hitting the defenceless pups are just as striking as those criticised two decades ago by the persuasive Ms Bardot.

Despite the efforts of activists, the hunting here in eastern Canada never actually stopped. But with a ban of seal product imports by the US and then, in 1983, a ban of white pelts by the EU, the numbers of animals being killed fell as low as 15,000. It is the reported recovery of the seal population and the growth of the new markets, including China, that has persuaded the federal authorities to issue such a large quota for 2003-2005. Those involved in the hunt do not try to make the case that it is a pretty business. Indeed the majority of hunters - angered by what they consider recent media bias - do not make the case at all. "Get the fuck out of here or I'll throw you in," said one scowling hunter, waving the knife clenched in his fist towards the ocean, as he stood on the deck of his fishing boat in Cap-Aux-Meules's quayside. "Journalists? You're all fucking crooks."

Those who will talk about the hunt put it in the context of both tradition and economic survival. At the recently-built plant owned by the company Madelipeche, processing the 30,000 pelts bought from hunters for up to $40 each, Mr Theriault claimed the trade in seal pelts was an essential boost to both a fragile economy and to a society that has seen many of its younger people forced to leave to find work elsewhere.

Up to 25 people were working one of two nine-hour shifts, using machines to slice the blubber from the pelts, roll the pelts with sawdust to dry the fat out of the skin, grade them for colour and defects, and then wash them in brine and pack them into cases for transportation to dealers in mainland Canada and thence the rest of the world. "It's lots of jobs," he said. "The money goes into the community. The people who are fishing are very important."

Mr Theriault suggested that if he and the others involved in the seal hunt were Inuit or "First Canadians", there would be little controversy, given that these aboriginal people still hunt seals with little outcry. "But we have made the hunt for 200 years," he said. "My father, my grandfather. We have always done it. The abolitionists have it easy. They make pictures about the hunters. It looks bad. But it is not as bad if you go to the place where they kill the lamb or beef or cow." Moreover, he claimed seal hunting was a matter of trying to balance nature. "We know the seals eat the cod. If we don't hunt the seal, the seal will get bigger and bigger and eat the last cod."

For more than 20 years Chris Clarke killed white-furred baby seals with a blow to the head from a club he kept in his modest fibreglass boat. A fisherman all his life, the seal harvest every spring represented a welcome boost to his income at a crucial time of the year, and yet he said it was never something he did casually. He only stopped hunting three years ago because of the competition from larger boats. "I don't think it could be any less cruel," he said, sitting in a restaurant - which, unlike many of the island's establishments, did not serve seal meat - in Cap-Aux-Meules with his wife of 26 years, Patty. "Killing any animal is not fun. I don't like killing any animal. But in my mind it is humane, it's something you have to do. I don't like killing fish but I have to make a living."

Mrs Clarke added: "This is the time of year that you need the money. All the bills come in the spring. If you can get a few dollars at this time of year, it is very helpful."

Mr Clarke and his wife argued that far from being bloodthirsty killers, the seal hunters on Cap-Aux-Meules were merely trying to survive. As with other island communities around the world many young people - including their daughter - were leaving for the mainland because there was not sufficient work. "My grandfather was lost at ice sealing," she said. "He had two brothers-in-law lost with him. My grandmother was carrying my mother at the time: my mother never saw her father." She added: "[The seal hunters] are not doing this for fun - it's for the money. It is hard labour. You are out on the ice all day. The only thing you can take is something like a molasses cookie - something that will not freeze - and some water. My father used to put ground ginger in his water to stop it freezing."

The Clarkes said that they were tired of being portrayed as murderers, and compared the life they live on the islands with that of their largely urban-based critics. "There is no crime here, everyone's door is always open," he said. "I could not imagine moving to a city; you have to watch your back, money seems to be everything. I would rather live in a small place and think that I was doing something."

In the hunt that ended last week, the hunters in the Isles de la Madeleine killed around 98,000 seals. As it has for decades, the hunt now moves north to the coast of Newfoundland - the so-called "front" - where, starting on Monday, it is estimated that almost three times as many seals will be killed on ice floes up to 100 miles off the shore.

With an eye to helping preserve diminishing communities, federal authorities believe the hunting quota is the right size for a seal population they estimate to have reached five million animals. The Fisheries Minister, Geoff Regan told The New York Times: "If you are going to have a harvest, you have to maintain a sustainable number."

But with the hunting about to resume and, with it, the images of bloody, battered seal pups lying on the snow, others are not so sure. Mads Christensen, a seal expert with the group Greenpeace, warned that such numbers may not be correct. Rather optimistically, he said: "We don't have enough science and that calls for caution."

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