- NS fishers beat seal pups to death on Hay Island, 2008
Monday, February 8th marks the official start of the season for clubbing baby grey seals to death on Hay Island, a protected wilderness area off northeastern Cape Breton. And now, there are fears that the federal government is quietly preparing the way for an even-bigger slaughter on Sable Island.
Andrew Newbould, an adviser on marine mammals for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the government has set a Sable Island quota of 39,803 grey seals, but no cull has been authorized this year. However, he would not rule out the "hypothetical" possibility of sealing on Sable Island in future.
Newbould says the Sable Island quota was based on a 2007 survey of the grey seal population. He adds the survey showed that up to 50,000 seals could be taken off the coasts of Nova Scotia without endangering the grey seal population.
Federal fisheries minister Gail Shea was in China last month seeking the lifting of restrictions on the import of seal products into a country described on the DFO website as the world's largest consumer of fish and seafood. "For Canada, sealing is about more than fur," Shea is quoted as saying in a news release issued in Beijing. "The trade of other seal products such as oils and meat represents a growing share of what is already a multi-million dollar business." Shea doesn't mention it, but there is also a lucrative potential market for seal penises in China where they are used in traditional medicines, as sexual stimulants or served as delicacies in restaurants.
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian branch of Humane Society International, says governments are under tremendous pressure to open Sable Island to sealing. “We’re very disturbed about that,” Aldworth says. “With an overall quota of 50,000, Sable is the only place you would find that kind of concentration.”
In 2008, Aldworth was part of a Humane Society team that photographed the clubbing of baby seals on Hay Island. “It was truly horrific,” she says. “There isn’t an Atlantic Canadian, besides those doing the clubbing themselves, who could stomach what we saw.”
Aldworth says the group will be on Hay Island again this year if the seal cull goes ahead. “People will be horrified to see baby seals beaten to death with wooden bats in a protected wilderness area,” she says. “This is not the image Canada should be projecting to the world.”
It’s still not certain whether sealers will be able to find markets this year for the Hay Island pelts. Last year, only 200 baby seals were clubbed to death there because of low prices and a lack of buyers. This year’s overall quota for the eastern Nova Scotia region, which includes Hay Island, is 2,220.
Many in the fishing industry maintain that seals need to be culled to protect declining fish stocks. But the DFO website makes it clear that seal hunting is not linked to reviving groundfish stocks. “Seals eat cod, but seals also eat other fish that prey on cod,” the DFO site reports. “It is widely accepted in the scientific community that there are many uncertainties in the estimates of the amount of fish consumed by seals. Seals and cod exist in a complex ecosystem, which makes it difficult to find simple solutions to problems such as the lack of recovery of cod stocks.”
A 2006 study by the Bedford Institute of Oceanography says there’s little evidence that seals are mainly to blame for the continued decline of the fish stocks. The study adds that grey seals do eat cod, but cod are only a small part of their diet. It concludes that while grey seals contribute to a decline in the cod stocks, even killing all of them “would not assure the recovery of the cod population.”