Sealers and protesters headed for showdown


The Cape Breton Post

SYDNEY - Local sealers heading to the Gulf of St. Lawrence for the annual harp seal hunt are in for a showdown with anti-sealing activists, both sides acknowledged Monday.

Protesters have arrived by helicopter on ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to film images of the commercial harp seal hunt, which began Monday.

Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International Canada, said by telephone that while no seal-hunting boats had arrived by Monday afternoon, the ice was so close to shore that some sealers from Iles de la Madeleine were walking out and clubbing the seals on the ice.

"We saw baby seals they had just killed and hauled their bodies across the ice," Aldworth said. "A few weeks ago, they were still nursing from their mothers. It's hard to take."

Cape Breton sealer Robert Courtney, president of the North of Smokey Fishermen's Association, was preparing his boat for the hunt Monday afternoon in North Sydney.

He said he knows what to expect from the protesters.

"I imagine they'll be out, same as last year, creating controversy and trying to raise money for their cause," said Courtney, whose crew will head to the Gulf of St. Lawrence as soon as the weather moves the ice away from shore and out to sea.

Friday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada set a quota of 280,000 harp seals for this year, up 5,000 over last year.

Courtney said his quota for this year is about 1,700 seals, up from 1,399 last year.

"It's competitive," Courtney said. "There's 140 sealers in Nova Scotia, about 20-odd in P.E.I. and a few in New Brunswick, and everybody will be eligible to go. I don't know if they will or not, but they'll all be eligible."

Thirty per cent of the harp seals harvested in Atlantic Canada will come from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while 70 per cent will be harvested off the northern coast of Newfoundland, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Courtney said he's not sure how long he will be out hunting seals.

"That depends," he said. "We've only got a small quota and we'll be finished when it's reached."

Courtney said harp seals are usually found on moving ice floes accessible by boat, but this year the weather has forced much of that ice toward the shore.

Aldworth said that has left many of the seals stranded on the ice near the shore, where they can be hunted more easily.

"It's tragic," Aldworth said. "The (herd of) seals broke into three parts - one part was blown in on the ice and trapped there."

Aldworth said this is the first year her group has been able to land a helicopter directly on the ice and walk to the scene of the hunt, but the weather Monday made it difficult to get to the coastal ice floes where the seals were being hunted.

"There was freezing rain, freezing fog and very low visibility. It made for some difficult flying, but we have amazing pilots," she said.

Eventually, there was a short break in the weather and they were able to land and record the first images of the hunt.

Aldworth said seven to 10 sealers were on the ice when her group arrived.

"We got there and the hunt itself had just happened, they were dragging the skins, hooking the skins to a line, and leaving the carcasses in the blood on the ice," Aldworth said.

The protesters know the hunt will only escalate when sealing boats from across the region arrive in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, she said. "We know, as of last night, 14 vessels left the Magdalen Islands

(Iles de la Madeleine)," Aldworth said Monday.

"Our role is to be the eyes of the world."

Camille Labchuk

Public Relations

Humane Society International/Canada

t: 613-695-2689

c: 613-252-4570

Protesters opposed to seal hunt swoop in by helicopter to record grim harvest

Tue Mar 24, 7:51 PM

By Steve Macleod, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX, N.S. - Seal hunters in boats and on snowmobiles and all- terrain vehicles ventured into thick ice in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence again Tuesday as anti-hunt observers swooped in by helicopter to record their grim work.

Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for the federal Fisheries Department, said 18 boats were in the area.

Another 50 hunters travelled in their vehicles directly from Iles de la Madeleine onto the ice that had pushed up against the land.

Jenkins said about 10,000 seals out of a total quota of 15,000 animals for the area around the Quebec islands had been killed from when the hunt opened early Monday to midday Tuesday.

Jenkins said it was possible the quota could be met by the end of the day.

"It's proceeding apace," he said from his Charlottetown office. "We haven't had any problems and this is the way we like it to be - safe and orderly."

High winds and blowing snow prevented animal welfare groups from flying out to the ice for much of the day.

But a director for Humane Society International Canada, Rebecca Aldworth, said her group eventually got off the ground.

"We are devastated by what we saw," she said in a statement.

"The once pristine ice floes were covered in blood, the carcasses abandoned as they always are - dumped like garbage. Sealers ran across the ice, clubbing every seal in their path. The pups would cry and try to crawl away ... but they were no match for the men with hakapiks."

The majority of sealers in the Iles de la Madeleine hunt use a hakapik - a heavy wooden club topped by a barbed metal hammer head - to crush a seal's skull.

Earlier, Aldworth said the fact sealers were continuing to kill seals in bad weather proves the hunt is "inherently inhumane."

"They're dealing with massive ocean swells out there, gale-force winds, low visibility, freezing rain, fog, and yet they're still out there killing seals," she said.

"The ability for them to deliver a humane death (blow) in those conditions in almost non-existent."

Wayne Dickson, a seal hunter from Iles de la Madeleine, said in a telephone interview from the ice that the conditions were much rougher than on Monday, when his boat took 238 seals.

"I don't think we're going to have anywhere near that today because of the ice conditions," he said. "It's awful heavy ice and just scattered seals today. Not very many."

The hunt off the islands is the first in a series off the East Coast that have a total allowable catch for harp, hooded and grey seals of 338,200 animals - 55,000 more than last year.

The quota increase announced Friday by federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea came despite continuing international opposition to the annual hunt and efforts to further limit already diminishing markets for pelts.

A European Parliament committee recently endorsed a bill that could eventually lead to a ban on the import of all seal products to the European Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also recently banned the seal hunt in that country, calling it a "bloody trade."

Aldworth said she wasn't surprised that Ottawa increased the quota despite the opposition and limited markets.

"I'm never surprised by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans putting in place reckless quotas," she said. "That's certainly their track record when it comes to every species under their jurisdiction - from cod and turbot to Atlantic salmon and seals."

Aldworth said neither market conditions nor conservation science support the hunt's continuation.

"This is very much a slaughter for political reasons and this quota was about politics and nothing more," she said.

Federal officials have issued 16 observer permits to journalists and anti-sealing organizations.

Some were able to reach the floes on Monday but are restricted from getting any closer than 10 metres from hunters.

Aldworth said some hunters shouted at them but there were no incidents.

"There is a very heavy police presence out there this year and I think the sealers are aware that if there is any aggression towards us that it will be duly noted by the authorities," she said.

Jenkins said the start of the hunt in the gulf for sealers from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick would be delayed until at least Thursday because of the weather.

Two years ago, thin ice in the gulf hindered hunters but Jenkins said conditions this year are ideal.

"We don't see very often a scenario where we have the ice right up against the shore, so the hunting can be done from vessels as well as the land," he said.

"That's the situation we're seeing right now."