ENVIRONMENTAL conditions have done what no animal rights activists could manage in decades - put a virtual stop to Canada's annual seal hunt.The Canadian government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which oversees what they call a sustainable and 'humane' industry, signaled the start of the harvest on April 3. But the arrival of large masses of ice drifting southward from the Arctic Sea into the north Atlantic has wreaked havoc on this controversial industry.
More than 20 vessels remain trapped in the ice, including a 30-footer skippered by Alvohn Pilgrim of Griquet, Newfoundland. He is accompanied by a crew of six, among them his son Tim. According to Canadian Coast Guard officials, the ice conditions off the northeast coast of Newfoundland are some of the worst in the last 15 years. Over 100 vessels were at one point impacted in six-foot thick ice.
"We have been stuck here now for 18 days," Pilgrim explained. "We are about 34 miles from Cape John, the nearest port. I can see eight boats all within a kilometer of us. They are all trapped too. We can't get out, we can't move around. A coastguard boat is near us but there's so much pressure on the ice the boats can't get to us and we can't follow them out."
The Canadian Coast Guard, which has dispatched four ice breakers to the area, has also been dropping groceries to the trapped sealers via helicopters. Pilgrim says they have a good supply of fuel and lots of moose meat, potatoes, cabbage and the like to sustain them for another week or two if need be. Boredom is a problem.
"We were up around 5am this morning hoping to be freed but the ice is still tight. We are prepared to go (hunting) until 10 o'clock at night. It's pretty boring on the boat, we are just chatting, looking at movies," Pilgrim added.
The efforts of the coastguard have, surprisingly, been widely criticized. Opponents of the seal hunt are angry that taxpayers' money is being used to help those who, they say, are blemishing Canada's reputation worldwide. Pilgrim has little time for them.
"We pay our taxes like any other people," he declared. "The coastguard are going out every day anyway. We are making part of our income from this."
Amazingly, just one vessel has been destroyed by the ice although eight have been abandoned by their crews. Many other sealers remain at home hoping for the ice to clear so they can set out for the hunt.
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In towns and villages along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast sealers rely on the hunt to sustain their economy.
"I have been sealing about 25 years, I suppose," said Wilf Alyward, who remains landlocked at home in St Anthony on the northern peninsular of Newfoundland. "It's worth more than ever to me. I don't know where the theory is on global warming. I wouldn't want to be close to the fella who tells me global warming is having an effect. We are surrounded by ice, it's just like a glacier. I will lose about 35% to 40% of my income for this year."
Once the sealers are freed, many will have to make repairs to their boats. Insurance premiums are so high - as much as $35,000 (Canadian dollars, £15,000) a year - that many sealers don't bother insuring their vessels at all. Those that do, complain that the deductible is $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the size of their boat - if they file a claim. In other words, they would have to pay the deductible out of their own pockets before receiving compensation.
Canada announced on Thursday that hunters can kill 270,000 harp seals this spring, despite environmentalists' protests that thousands of pups too young to swim have fallen through ice thinned by global warming, jeopardizing the stability of the population.
Once the sealers do bring their haul in they will sell the pelts for around $50 each, a significant drop from last year's price of $105. Though they try to remain optimistic, they are concerned that economics rather than climate change could end the centuries-old practice.
"It would be the same as you losing your job. What would you do if they don't print no papers any more? I have three kids as well," said Wilf Alyward. "When I come in with some seals they are glad to see it. I have two boys and a girl. They are at the age when they can help out a lot. They go out sealing sometimes."
Between the animal rights activists who have campaigned all these years to stop the sealing and the limited marketability of the seals themselves it is a difficult time. It's more of a problem when mother nature doesn't co-operate.
©2007 newsquest (sunday herald) limited