Humane Killing Of Seals In The Atlantic Seal Hunt
October 6, 2021
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) holds that the hunting of seals should only be conducted if it is demonstrated that it can be undertaken in a humane and sustainable manner. The CVMA maintains that comprehensive enforcement of the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act (1) is essential. The CVMA recognises that the hunt remains a polarizing topic and supports ongoing monitoring of the hunt by independent welfare-focused observers, including veterinarians. The CVMA also encourages further research on best practices for hunting seals, particularly if and when new age groups or hunting practices are considered.
The CVMA advocates for and strongly believes that mandatory training and licensing of sealers with regard to the humane treatment of seals is necessary in order to result in as humane and rapid a death as possible.
- The seal hunt remains a polarizing topic.
- Hunting of seals should only be carried out if it is demonstrated that it can be undertaken in a humane and sustainable manner.
- The commercial trade in younger seals (whitecoats and bluecoats) that have not moulted their coat is prohibited by law.
- A firearm, club, or hakapik may be used to kill seals. Their reliability is highly dependant on a number of factors including operator preparedness, strength, skill, experience, and hunt conditions.
- Irrespective of the method, death must be confirmed by palpating the skull to confirm that the cranium has been crushed and then the seal must be bled by severance of both axillary arteries.
- The Atlantic seal hunt has been the subject of divided public opinion for decades, both within and outside Canada. Opponents contend that it is inhumane and unsustainable while supporters cite traditional practices and much needed revenue (1-3).
- Harp seals and grey seals are commercially hunted in Atlantic Canadian waters. Most of the seals that are hunted are approximately 4-6 weeks old. The commercial trade in younger seals (whitecoats and bluecoats) that have not moulted their coat is not permitted (4).
- Young seals have thin skulls that can be completely crushed by one or a few strong blows with a wooden club or hakapik (a club with a metal ferrule). Therefore, the CVMA considers that if conducted properly, this can be a rapid, efficient, and humane means of killing young seals. Specifically, the CVMA recommends that, when a hakapik is used, each seal should be hit with enough strong blows to its skull to ensure rapid and complete destruction of both cerebral hemispheres. However, as it requires considerable skill and strength to apply sufficient force to consistently fracture the skull, there are concerns over hakapik use to consistently cause rapid death (5-10).
- When firearms are used to kill seals, their effectiveness is dependent on the equipment used and the marksmanship of the hunter in challenging conditions where both the boat containing the hunter, and the seal, can be moving. The CVMA supports the Marine Mammal Regulations (4) specifying the minimum velocity and energy of bullets that can be used in the hunt, as bullets meeting these specifications are more likely to kill an animal even if they do not directly hit its brain, as compared to bullets of lower velocity and energy.
- Regardless of the killing method, the CVMA strongly asserts that the sealer must verify death of the animal before it is dragged with a hook or is bled. This is accomplished by palpation of the skull to ensure it is crushed, indicating that complete destruction of both cerebral hemispheres has occurred (4). Exsanguination of the seal by severance of the axillary blood vessels provides a secondary and terminal method of killing the seal and eliminates the possibility of a conscious seal being dragged or skinned while able to experience pain (5,9). To this effect, Fisheries and Oceans Canada requires that seal harvesters to abide by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) stating that the 3-step process (1. Striking 2. Checking 3. Bleeding) for harvesting seals must be acquired through training and applied in the field (11).
- The CVMA expresses significant concern about the shooting of seals in the water as this prevents the sealers from checking for a crushed skull in these animals to ensure that complete destruction of both cerebral hemispheres has occurred before retrieving them with a hook (5,9). This method also can result in an unacceptably high rate of animals not being retrievable after shooting at certain times of the year, potentially leading to inhumane deaths. As well, this could result in the killing of replacement animals which would otherwise not have been harvested (12). The CVMA recommends that a seal should not be shot unless the hunter is able to ascertain loss of consciousness or death rapidly after the shooting (13).
- In some regions of the Atlantic coast, subsistence hunters may rely on the use of nets set in water to catch and drown the animals. The CVMA strongly opposes this method of hunting, as drowning is considered to be a protracted, and therefore inhumane form of death (5). The CVMA supports regulations that would make this method of hunting illegal.
- The CVMA believes that harvest of seal populations must be done in a sustainable manner and that continued population monitoring is essential.
- The CVMA supports ongoing monitoring of the hunt by independent welfare-focused observers, who may include veterinarians, to verify compliance with the appropriate use of humane killing methods.
- Lavigne DM, Lynn WS. Canada’s commercial seal hunt: It’s more than a question of humane killing. Journal of Animal Ethics. 2011 Apr 1;1(1):1-5. Available from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/01f7/d112fd133bd75cc4cefb420294590f867bd3.pdf?_ga=2.232573087.1442272970.1613007457-1611191721.1613007457
- Marland, A., 2014. If seals were ugly, nobody would give a damn: Propaganda, nationalism, and political marketing in the Canadian seal hunt. Journal of Political Marketing, 13(1-2), pp.66-84. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271937953_If_Seals_Were_Ugly_Nobody_Would_Give_a_Damn_Propaganda_Nationalism_and_Political_Marketing_in_the_Canadian_Seal_Hunt
- Livernois J. The economics of ending Canada's commercial harp seal hunt. Marine Policy. 2010 Jan 1;34(1):42-53. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308597X09000578
- Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR). Marine Mammal Regulations SOR/93-56. Minister of Justice, Canada. 2018. Available from : http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/PDF/SOR-93-56.pdf.
- Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare on a request from the Commission on the Animal Welfare aspects of the killing and skinning of seals. The EFSA Journal 2007;610:1-122. Available from : https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2007.610.
- Butterworth A, Richardson M. A review of animal welfare implications of the Canadian commercial seal hunt. Marine Policy 2013;38:457-469. Available from : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X12001662.
- Daoust PY, Hammill, M, Stenson, G, Caraguel, C. A review of animal welfare implications of the Canadian commercial seal hunt: a critique. Marine Policy, 2014;43: 367-371. Available from : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X13001541.
- Butterworth A, Richardson, M. A review of animal welfare implications of the Canadian commercial seal hunt–a response to critique of paper MP13 172. Marine Policy, 2014;43:379-381. Available from : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X13001528.
- Daoust P-Y, Caraguel C. The Canadian harp seal hunt: observations on the effectiveness of procedures to avoid poor animal welfare outcomes. Animal Welfare 2012;21:445-455. Available from: https://www.sealharvest.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Canadian-harp-seal-hunt-Animal-Welfare-2012.pdf.
- DFO. 2013. Effectiveness of methods used to kill seals in Canada’s commercial seal hunt, with particular emphasis on grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2013/010. Available from: https://waves-vagues.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/349418.pdf.
- Smith, B. Improving Humane Practice in the Canadian Harp Seal Hunt. A Report of the Independent Veterinarians’ Working Group on the Canadian Harp Seal Hunt. 2005. Available from : http://www.cwhc-rcsf.ca/docs/technical_reports/IVWG_Report_EN.pdf.
- Ensuring the seal harvest is humane. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Government of Canada webpage. https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fisheries-peches/seals-phoques/humane-sans-cruaute-eng.html
- Sjare B, Stenson GB. Estimating struck and loss rates for harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) in the Northwest Atlantic. Marine Mammal Science 2002;18:710-720. Available From : https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2002.tb01068.x.
(Revised July 2021)