Seal Hunt in Canada Opens on Thin Ice

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
March 24, 2006

Seal hunters and animal-rights activists may both be treading on thin ice this weekend, as Canada's annual harp seal hunt gets underway.

Shrinking sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in southeastern Canada (map) is adding a new twist to the controversial commercial seal harvest.

Ice floes are sparser and thinner than normal this year in the waters north of Prince Edward Island, where hundreds of thousands of harp seals congregate each year to give birth to their pups.

As a result, hunters may be forced to pursue their quarry in the water as well as on ice.

In addition, protest groups planning to land helicopters on the ice to film the slaughter may have to change their tactics.

Some scientists fear the seals may face food shortages because of the poor ice, and young may be forced into the water before they are capable of prolonged ocean swimming.

Critics of the world's largest marine-mammal hunt had been calling for a reduced kill quota this year due to the warm winter conditions.

They were disturbed by the Canadian government's announcement last week that 325,000 harp seals could be killed—one of the highest totals ever.

In 1987 decades of protest culminated in a ban on the clubbing of white-furred harp seal pups in Canada. Now the protests are picking up steam again.

About a million harp seals have been killed over the past three years, mostly animals between 25 days and 13 months of age.

Although the youngest pups are protected, harp seals are weaned and lose their white coats when only two weeks old, making them fair game for hunters.

Ancient Tradition, Modern Politics

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