Seal Hunt Controversy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Seal Hunt Controversy

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 10, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

On the second day of the St. Lawrence SEAL hunt, Remi Clarke steered his 46-foot Diane Rose away from the ice floes and back toward his home wharf on the northeastern tip of Quebec's Magdalen Islands.

Seal Hunt Controversy

On the second day of the St. Lawrence SEAL hunt, Remi Clarke steered his 46-foot Diane Rose away from the ice floes and back toward his home wharf on the northeastern tip of Quebec's Magdalen Islands. Hampered by heavy fog and slim pickings, his plan was to dock the vessel for a night or two, unload the 81 pelts his crew did collect, and then head back to sea for another try. By the time he reached dry land that Sunday afternoon, nearly everyone in Grosse-Île - population 556 - had seen the picture.

The day before, a photographer covering the opening hours of the hunt snapped Remi Clarke in mid-scream, his mouth wide open as he tossed expletives at a boatload of animal rights activists. A member of Clarke's crew tossed something more tangible: seal guts. Within hours, news of the angry confrontation - and the captain's unflattering headshot - was all over the Internet. One protester threatened to call the Mounties.

"Tempers flare," Clarke explains two days later, as he and his six crew mates climb aboard the boat for a second round of hunting. This time, the 29-year-old packs his own camera, hoping to catch a few protesters crossing that fine line between activism and interference. "You've got a bunch of millionaires running around in orange suits and you're trying to hunt," says Clarke, dressed in camouflage army pants and a blue baseball cap. "Any hunter, after a couple of hours, would get pretty pissed."

Indeed, all across the Magdalen Islands - and Eastern Canada, for that matter - it is hard to find a single sealer who isn't annoyed. And rightfully so. For decades, their way of life has been maligned and demonized by people who, in most cases, have never looked them in the eye, let alone stopped to ponder what it must be like to depend so heavily on something as unforgiving and unreliable as the ocean. Instead, strangers from all corners of the globe mark the arrival of spring by decrying Canada's club-wielding barbarians, those savage murderers who bash skulls for a few laughs and a few fur hats. Rallies are organized. Petitions are signed. Websites are built, most begging for donations to help save the poor little seals.

For a moment, put aside emotions. Ignore that queasy feeling that fills your stomach at the first sight of blood-stained ice. Forget about how adorable seals are, how unfair it must be to be bopped on the head with a wooden club. Now consider this: though it lasts only a few weeks, the annual hunt is a multi-million-dollar industry, one that creates hundreds of jobs in rural regions where employment is sporadic at best. Yes, fur is the primary attraction, but the blubber is equally valuable, so rich in omega-3 fatty acids that health food stores sell seal oil in capsule form. The meat, by the way, is also delicious, a delicacy in butcher shops and restaurants across the Magdalen Islands.

Rhetoric aside, the seal hunt is neither reckless nor irresponsible; this year's quota of 335,000 harp seals amounts to a tiny percentage of the overall population, which, since the 1970s, has tripled to 5.8 million. And - despite how horrific the hunt might seem to someone who has never stopped to think where that chicken in his chicken salad comes from - the clubbing of a cute baby seal is no more brutal than what happens every day inside a typical abattoir. If a cow was slaughtered on an ice patch, it would leave behind the same red stain.

But of course, it wasn't a slaughterhouse that Paul McCartney and his wife, Heather, visited last month. It was an ice floe, chock full of - you guessed it - pretty seal pups. The former Beatle is just the latest big name to throw his celebrity weight behind the battle to ban the hunt. Morrissey and Brigitte Bardot are also on the A-list, joined last week by Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, the host of this year's Juno Awards, who is demanding a sit-down with Prime Minister Stephen HARPER. "As a proud Canadian who frequently travels abroad," the former Playmate said, "I am alarmed that people are starting to see Canada as a country more beholden to a pack of greedy hunters and to the sealskin 'fashion' whims of a few countries than to the international outcry against the hunt."

Greedy? That is hardly the word that comes to mind after spending a few minutes with Remi Clarke and his crew. These are men who have gone days without a good sleep and many more without a paycheque. Men who have spent the winter collecting unemployment insurance, praying that come March, they will kill enough seals to cover their overdue bills. "You're just surviving, not really living," says Ryan Burke, smoking a cigarette inside the cabin of the Diane Rose. "We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't really need it."

Discovered by Jacques CARTIER, the Magdalen Islands are a collection of a dozen smaller islands linked by narrow sand dunes and generations of fishermen. Located 105 km off the shore of Prince Edward Island, the ÎLES DE LA MADELEINE are, fittingly enough, shaped like a giant fish hook, with a single highway - Route 199 - connecting one end to the other. Driving past the clusters of oceanfront homes is like picking through a box of crayons. Each house is painted a brighter colour than the next. Pink. Lime. Orange. Purple. Many front lawns are lined with lobster traps.

Nearly all of the 13,000 people who call this place home can trace their roots to the sea. For hundreds of years, residents have trolled the Gulf of St. Lawrence for crabs and cod and herring and mackerel. But it is the seal hunt that has always marked the start of the fishing calendar; first in the Gulf, then later this month off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. There was a time when islanders would actually walk to their prey, lugging home three or four pelts at a time - if they made it home at all.

Those who want nothing more than to see the hunt abolished often point to its minimal economic benefits. Any profits are "trivial," the argument goes, when compared to the entire East Coast fishery. That's true. But for hundreds of men who have spent the winter on social assistance, no amount of cash is too trivial to slip in their wallet. In previous years, Kelly Clarke, a 34-year-old sealer with a black toque and a blond goatee, has pocketed up to $5,000 for a week's worth of work. "When you make $25,000 a year," he says, "that's a big boost."

In 2005, the overall boost amounted to nearly $16.5 million. Sealers in Quebec and Newfoundland sold a combined 316,190 pelts at an average price of $52.12 apiece - an 18 per cent jump from the year before. Every cent is cash that Canadian fishermen simply would not have if Ottawa had caved to special interest groups and cancelled the hunt. Crunch that number any way you like. Whether it is one per cent of the fishery or 100 per cent, it still equals $16.5 million.

"It's better than staying home and doing nothing," says Christopher Clark, a lifelong fisherman who doubles as mayor of Grosse-Île. "SEALING is not as important in the fishery as some other things, but it's still part of what we do."

On March 25, a chilly Sunday morning, Clark's son, Tommy Lejeune, docks his boat - the Kayla & Annabelle, named in honour of his two daughters - in Cap-aux-Meules. With a population of almost 1,600, Cap-aux-Meules is the island's equivalent of a downtown core. The only Tim Hortons is here, as is the hospital and every government office. "We done all right," Lejeune says, his eyes red from lack of sleep. "We could have killed more, but they were still white and young and there is no sale for them."

For almost 20 years now, the federal government has forbidden the killing of "whitecoat" seals, the newborn pups with the big, black eyes. Instead, hunters scope the ice for "beaters," seals that have reached three or four weeks and have shed their light-coloured coat for a darker shade of black. Lejeune and his crew killed 40 beaters in the first 24 hours. Not bad, but not nearly as good as seasons past. After expenses, Lejeune says he will be lucky to take home $1,500.

"I seen where they were, and I stayed away," he says of the anti-sealing activists, who venture to the Gulf every year to film the hunters as they ply their trade. "It bothers us. A lot of people, their jobs depend on this." Lejeune is not naive. He knows why outsiders think the worst. The blood on his deck. The bucketful of seal hearts, destined to be breaded and fried like veal cutlets. But looks, he insists, are deceiving. "We're not hurting them," he says. "They're not suffering or nothing like that. When we kill 'em, it's quick and fast."

An independent scientific study reached the same conclusion. The 2002 report, released in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, found that 98 per cent of seals caught during the hunt were killed "in an acceptably humane manner." Jean-Claude Lapierre has pointed that out more times than he can remember. As president of the local sealers' association, he spends as much time talking to the media as he does hunting. Nothing bothers him more than the websites, the ones plastered with tear-jerking photos of fuzzy whitecoats - right beside hyperlinks urging people to take out their credit cards. The sites, Lapierre says, conveniently forget to mention that whitecoats have not been commercially hunted since 1987. "They don't tell the truth," he says, standing beside his tugboat, Manuels River. "All kinds of lies go on that site, and the money come in, come in, come in."

When the pelts come in, most go to Tamasu, a small processing plant not far from where Lapierre is standing. Inside, workers dressed from head-to-toe in green plastic suits funnel pelt after pelt down an assembly line. One machine slices the blubber from the fur. Another dries the pelts with sawdust. Yet another squeezes every last drop of oil out of the blubber - oil that will later be transformed into pills loaded with omega-3 fatty acids.

In the front office, which smells no less fishy than the factory floor, Bernard Guimont hammers away at his laptop, a cellphone earpiece hanging down his chin. He is the public face of the seven-year-old company, the man who travels to Europe and Asia in search of buyers. Last year, Canada exported nearly 203,000 raw seal pelts overseas, the bulk of them to customers in Norway, Finland and Greenland. Most will become garments, like the winter jacket hanging in Guimont's office. The fur is dyed "Atlantic blue," the colour of the ocean. "Everywhere that I'm wearing it," he says, "there is nobody that is not saying, 'What a gorgeous coat.' "

Tamasu is a profitable venture, although Guimont declines to disclose exactly how much it makes. What he will say is that the seal hunt means two months of full-time employment for more than 50 people on the Magdalen Islands. Fur is still the hottest commodity, but in three or four years, as scientists continue to discover the health benefits of omega-3, Guimont expects the oil - not the pelts - to drive the company's bottom line. "We have to make people know what we're doing," he says. "It is a tough, tough game, but I do believe somewhere, somehow, the message is starting to come across."

Christine Leblanc certainly doesn't need convincing. Like she has for decades, the 71-year-old mother of nine - and Remi Clarke's grandmother - is standing in her kitchen in Pointe-aux-Loups, stirring seal flippers as they boil on her stove. When they're finished, she will peel the meat from the bones, carve it into tiny pieces, and stuff the final product into dozens of Mason jars, preserving today's catch for tomorrow's meat pies and stews. "The most important thing is to get the fat off," Leblanc says, offering a sample from her silver bowl. It tastes a lot like wild duck.

"There's nothing else here except the fishery," says Leblanc's son-in-law, Dave Clarke. He brought her the flippers, 40 pairs in all. "We're fishermen, we're hunters, and we're just trying to make a living - just like everyone else."

Maclean's April 10, 2006