It was carnage on a scale the frozen ice floes of Newfoundland have not seen for more than half a century. The cull started early in the morning Tuesday, with more than 70 boats disgorging hundreds of seal hunters onto the ice. By the end of the day more than 15,000 harp seal cubs, most less than 6 weeks old, lay dead, clubbed to death and skinned to provide coats, hats, handbags and other accessories for the European fashion trade.
The contentious harp seal hunt, the target of protests since the 1960s, begins about two weeks after the seal pups are born and their fur changes from white to gray. Animal rights activists claim the pups are often skinned alive, but sealers and government officials who monitor the hunt insist the pups die instantly in compliance with strict guidelines.
The Canadian government claims the cull will protect fish stocks and bring in much-needed revenue and employment for those who live on Canada's vast northern coastline.
Phyllis Campbell-McCrae, from the U.K. office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, observed the start of the cull Tuesday. "There was lots of rain mixing with the blood of the seals, and we were wading through pools of blood with the odd carcass floating by," she said. "It was simply awful. They club the seal and turn it over and slice it down the middle to get the skin off. They are supposed to do the eye test -- that is, touch the eye of the seal they have clubbed to make sure it does not blink. That way they know it is dead before they skin it. They work at such a frenetic pace they often do not bother."
She said tests carried out in previous seasons on cubs that had been clubbed and skinned showed that 42 percent were still conscious when skinned.
The pups are fed for two weeks by their mothers before being abandoned to fend for themselves. They are called "beaters" at this stage because they are unable to swim, and when the ice melts they fall into the water and beat it with their flippers to keep afloat. Left alone they learn to swim and begin looking for food, but before the ice melts they make an easy target for sealers and have no means of escape.
The killing of seals has been controversial for years, with the IFAW saying it is unacceptably cruel. Campaigners also say that the Canadian government's claim that the seals had been eating too many fish and had to be controlled was making the seals a scapegoat for their own failure to control overfishing.
Opposition to the slaughter in the 1980s led the European Union to ban the import of white-coated seals less than three weeks old and the trade went into decline. In the 1990s overfishing of cod stocks off Newfoundland led to mass unemployment of fishermen and renewed claims that the seals, which were increasing in numbers again, were responsible.
This led to pressure for increased quotas for seal hunting to provide an income for unemployed fishermen. The Canadian government has progressively increased the quota and decided to cull 1 million pups in three years -- the largest quota since 1957. The IFAW claims this level of killing led to a serious decline in harp seals.
The trade in the slightly older, soft gray skins of the beaters is now thriving, and the Canadians have decided to kill 320,000 in the next four weeks. Beater skins are worth around 20 pounds (about $38), and a high-fashion sealskin coat made of beater skins sells for 1,200 pounds (more than $2,200).
The Canadian government denies that the killing of the pups is cruel and says it is closely regulated. The government's latest estimate of harp seal numbers is 5.2 million. Geoff Regan, the fisheries and oceans minister for the federal government, has said he would be happy to see the numbers reduced by one-third.
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, he said that while seals had been traditionally hunted for meat and skins, the fatty layer under their skin could be processed into oil to produce omega 3 fatty acids used for treating hypertension, diabetes and arthritis. "Seal oil is great in terms of omega 3 acids," Regan is quoted as saying. "I'm anxious to see that the whole animal is used as much as possible, and encouraging more ways for that to happen is important." Regan said his department is not only ignoring calls for the seal hunt to be outlawed but encouraging it to expand.
He accused animal welfare groups of using images of seal pups being slaughtered "to pull at people's heartstrings." Regan said that the seal cull is economically viable and is not subsidized.
The largest importer of seal pelts is Norway, which last year paid 1 million pounds for raw pelts. Denmark, Poland and China also import large quantities. Italy imports finished pelts to be made into fashion items.
So sensitive is the Canadian government to criticism of cruelty that Wednesday it put out a fact sheet to journalists. It said that seals may appear to be moving after they are killed because of a reflex reaction similar to that in chickens. The government claimed that quotas are set as "a sustainable, commercially viable fishery based on sound conservation principles. It is a market-driven harvest."