Animal News

Is the seal hunt worth it? - Jun 28th 2009

Is the seal hunt worth it?
Friday, June 26, 2009
ERIC REGULYM, The globe and mail

It makes meagre revenues and costs a fortune of goodwill abroad

Canadians
like to think of themselves as the peacekeepers of the world, beloved
for their civilized ways. The Maple Leaf has been the decal of choice
for travelling backpackers for decades. But mention Canada to your
average European and, increasingly, you get looks of disapproval. The
ugly truth is that many Europeans associate Canada with dead seals in
the same way Norway and Japan instantly conjure up images of dead
whales. Blood in the water, blood on the ice—for most of the world,
it’s the same thing. In case anyone needed a graphic reminder, this
past May, Governor-General Michaëlle Jean gobbled down a raw seal heart
for all to see at an Inuit feast.

Canada
also keeps promoting the bloody image through its endless defence of
the Atlantic harp seal hunt, even though the slaughter makes no
political, moral or economic sense. This past spring, when the European
Union voted to ban the import of almost all seal products, Canadian
politicians and diplomats had yet another pro-sealing spasm. Even
before the vote, and as Canada and the EU were launching free trade
negotiations, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day vowed to
appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Not
to be outdone on the blubberhead PR front, the Bloc Québécois
introduced a motion in Parliament to try to integrate seal pelts into
the uniforms of Canadian athletes at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics
(fur-lined jockstraps, perhaps?). MPs from all parties voted in favour.

Canada’s
pro-sealing campaign began in the mid-1960s, when the world was first
treated to TV broadcasts of the annual clubbing orgy, but Ottawa has
not scored a single major PR victory. In 1972, the U.S. Marine Mammal
Protection Act banned trade in marine mammal products. In the 1980s,
the European Community banned the trade in products from
“whitecoats”—newborn harp seals. In the past decade Mexico, Belgium and
the Netherlands extended the ban to almost all seal products.

In
one sense, the anti-sealing mob was, and remains, delighted by Canada’s
refusal to say “uncle,” for the simple reason that the discord pays
them well. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was
launched in 1969 in New Brunswick to fight the seal hunt. Today it’s
run out of Cape Cod, and it’s one of the world’s largest animal
activist groups. The Humane Society International and PETA (People for
the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are two other groups fuelled, in
large part, by anti-sealing donors and campaigners, among them Paul
McCartney, Brigitte Bardot and Pamela Anderson.

Why
Canada persists in supporting sealing is a mystery. Officially, the
EU’s ban on seal products and the launch of the free trade talks with
Canada aren’t linked. But Canada needs the trade deal more than the
Europeans. Canada would gain free trade and investment access to 500
million EU citizens, against the EU’s access to 33 million Canadians.

What’s
most remarkable is that Canada’s seal hunt is probably a net economic
loss if you factor in the costs of the ceaseless overseas lobbying
effort and the Canadian Coast Guard’s role in the hunt. In a new study,
University of Guelph economics professor John Livernois concludes that
“the benefits of ending the commercial hunt exceed the costs.”

Canada’s
total seal-product exports to the EU were a mere $6 million last year.
Sealers often reach their pelt quota days after the hunt starts, and
Livernois estimated their annual individual earnings to be either $281
or $327. The real figure may be lower, because boat-insurance costs
might be higher than sealers admit. Hull damage, for example, is
routine. As fuel prices start climbing again, and as the trade bans
push down pelt prices, profits will likely stay low unless Asian buyers
fill the void.

Why
not buy off the sealers? Economists and a few enlightened politicians
have raised that idea before. But determining the fairest way to
compensate sealers for the lost income has been elusive. Livernois has
a clever idea: Issue ITQs—individual transferable quotas—to them. The
ITQs’ market value would be known because they could be leased or sold
internally—among the thousands of sealers themselves—and externally.
Animal rights groups could buy ITQs and retire them. Buy enough and the
Canadian seal hunt would disappear.

The
worst possible strategy for our international image, Canadian taxpayers
and the trade talks with the EU would be a renewed pro-sealing
campaign. Yet Ottawa is already gearing up for a fresh assault. After
40 years of losing, this constitutes, at best, masochism.