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Blood On The Ice

The annual seal cull begins in Canada today, with the quota set at 275,000 animals. Europe should join the US in banning fur imports

Caroline Lucas

It seems that Canada isn't too keen on telling the world about its annual culling of seal pups. NGO representatives and members of the British media have reported that the department of fisheries and oceans (DFO) is refusing to issue permits for visitors on the main day of the hunt, thereby preventing observers from documenting it. Photographs of blood-stained ice and seal corpses resulting from the cull are not great for its image.0329 10

The European Community passed legislation 25 years ago banning the import of fur from whitecoat harp seal pups and hooded seal pups. The ban resulted from widespread revulsion of the clubbing to death of seal pups for a product nobody needs: fur.

However, the cruelty of commercial seal hunting persists, with substantial numbers of seals being killed in Russia and Namibia, as well as Canada, where hunters have turned their attention to slightly older pups. The DFO has just announced that 275,000 pups will be killed over the next few weeks during this year's slaughter - nearly 100,000 more than the annual toll prior to the EC ban.

Despite the 1983 ban, Europe still plays a crucial role in supporting the killing. The sealers now wait just a few days until the harp seal pups have shed their white fur. These youngsters are still unable to swim and have not yet had a solid meal. They are clubbed or shot for their fur, which can be and is imported into the EU. It is the money from this trade that convinces sealers to continue the hunt.

Yet sealing is not a full-time job. Far from it - it is carried out for only a few days each year by off-season fishermen. On average, they make less than 5% of their income from sealing.

We are talking here about a dangerous and de-humanising occupation. Many sealers have been injured or killed and many boats lost. A rich country like Canada could buy back the licenses of the sealers, giving them fair compensation to re-invest in more dignified, sustainable work. Bludgeoning baby seals to death is not a great career choice in the 21st century.

And it would be wrong to think that sealing is carried out to protect the fish stocks - even the DFO does not argue this anymore. The ecosystem in the north-west Atlantic is complex and, for much of their lives, harp seals eat a range of species, including those that prey on Atlantic cod.

The DFO does, however, try to say that the harp seal population is huge (more than 5.5 million), but bases its estimates on questionable methodology. The population could be significantly lower than this but, because the seals do not breed until they are five to six years old, we will not see the true impact of the hunt for many years to come.

The other alarming factor in recent years has been the lack of ice forming due to climate change. Harp seals rely on sea ice to breed. For millions of years they have migrated south to give birth on ice floes, free from predators. Last year, there was hardly any ice in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence and pup mortality approached 100%.

Far from calling off the hunt, the DFO issued a quota of 270,000 and the northern Gulf saw a mopping-up exercise, where every pup that could be found was killed.

Evidence of the consequent suffering has been shown to the world by groups such as the Humane Society International that, each year and under difficult circumstances, observes and films the Canadian seal hunt.

It is this evidence that prompted the European parliament to adopt my written declaration (pdf) in 2006 that called for the European commission to ban the import, export and sale of seal products. This would ensure the protection of all seals including the 80,000 cape fur seals, which are annually clubbed to death in Namibia, and the seal pups butchered in the Archangel region of northern Russia.

The commission response has been to examine the whole issue of seal killing. A European food safety authority report concludes that "there is strong evidence that ... effective killing does not always occur." How could it?

The report also recommended that "attempts should not be made to kill seals ... that do not pose a stable target or where the sealer may be unbalanced (eg in adverse weather conditions, moving substrates) as it can cause avoidable pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering." Yet this describes the bulk of the seal hunt and also underlines why we should be taking urgent action.

My Green party colleague Carl Schlyter tried to witness the seal hunt in 2006, but was prevented from doing so by angry mobs, which prevented helicopters from taking off and wrecked one of the observation team's vehicles. The subsequent video taken of the seal killing showed what they were keen for the world not to see: seals, shot and badly injured, gaffed and dragged onto boats, mandatory checks to ensure seals were dead rarely being carried out, and seals brutally clubbed multiple times because the first strike was ineffective.

It is clear, from countless opinion polls (and from my own constituents' correspondence) that a total import ban is very widely supported. Belgium and the Netherlands have already banned seal imports and the US banned them way back in 1972. Until we fully ban the import of all seal products into Europe, we will have blood on our hands.

Caroline Lucas became one of the UK's first Green Party MEPs in 1999 when she was elected to represent South-East England in the European Parliament.

© 2008 The Guardian

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