In Canada, baby seals still face a cruel fate

By Rebecca Aldworth

By on April 19, 2022 with 13 Comments

Today I’m turning the blog over to my colleague Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada.

For nearly two decades, Rebecca has been on the literal front lines of the fight to save animals, traveling to the ice floes of the Northwest Atlantic to document Canada’s brutal commercial seal hunt. She’s seen cruelty and refused to look away, instead documenting the slaughter to bring global attention to this issue. And we’ve seen progress: Most major markets no longer accept the trade in commercial seal products, and we’ve saved millions of seals from an unimaginably cruel fate. Yet the killing continues, even as climate change makes survival even more difficult for this ice-dependent species. In this guest post, Rebecca shares her reflections on the seal hunt and makes a powerful plea for ending it, once and for all.

A lone seal pup rests on a fragile ice floe, ocean waves pounding against the sides. He is just 2 weeks old, and he can’t swim for long, so he can’t survive without this ice platform. But the fragile floe is melting fast, and storms are accelerating its disintegration.

Within days, like thousands of other young pups in this area, he is propelled into the freezing ocean. There, he struggles to swim, battling ocean swells and waves, high winds and freezing rain. He is incredibly lucky and, against all odds, makes it to another slab of ice. He pulls himself onto it, one of the few surviving pups in this region. Exhausted, he rests there for a few days.

But soon, it becomes clear that his reprieve is temporary. On a clear and sunny morning, the mechanical roar of a boat engine shatters the peace of the harp seal nursery. A sealer scans the area, spots the young pup and takes aim. A bullet rips through the pup’s back. As his blood pours out onto the ice, the boat inches closer. The pup freezes, instinctively pretending to be dead. The boat arrives at last, and a sealer leans over the side with a gaff, a long wooden pole with a metal hook at the end. The sealer stabs the hook into the pup’s jaw and drags him onto the deck of the vessel. As the pup cries out, the sealer swings his club three times, smashing the pup’s skull.

The fate of this pup is all too common in Atlantic Canada, where the commercial seal hunt has devolved into a heedless slaughter of the survivors of an unfolding climate disaster. Harp seals rely on sea ice to give birth to their pups, and the pups need the ice to remain intact for several weeks until they are strong enough to survive in open water. But in recent decades, we have witnessed a profound change in the ecosystem of the Northwest Atlantic: The sea ice that comprises the harp seal nursery is vanishing at an alarming rate. Climate change is causing the ice to form later in the season, and the thin and fragile ice floes are breaking up far earlier. In some areas, the sea ice isn’t forming at all.

The impact of vanishing Arctic sea ice on ice-dependent species such as polar bears has been the subject of considerable global focus over the years. Yet surprisingly little public attention has been paid to the sub-Arctic, where harp seals reproduce, even though the impacts of climate change on sea ice are far more rapid and dramatic in this region. Thankfully, Canadian government scientists are starting to speak out, noting the serious impact the disappearing ice is having on the harp seals who are the primary targets of the commercial seal hunt.

While some variability in sea ice cover is expected from year to year, in the harp seal whelping areas off Canada’s east coast, the trend is a steady decline. Harp seals are highly adapted to their environments, giving birth to just one pup per year, and populations can be significantly and rapidly affected when environmental conditions are unfavourable. Already, harp seal reproduction rates are dropping, and pup mortality is very high in years with poor ice cover. Scientists warn that, as the sea ice continues to diminish, the impacts on the harp seal population will worsen. Yet in recent years, the Canadian government has authorized annual commercial sealing quotas in excess of 400,000, and tens of thousands of seal pups continue to be shot and beaten to death for their fur each spring.

Despite the ongoing work to slow our planet’s warming, we know that no one can stop the impacts of climate change in the immediate future. But a responsible government can, and should, end commercial hunting of ice-dependent seal pups in a region experiencing such severe impacts of climate change. A mass slaughter of baby seals, carried out at taxpayers’ expense to produce fur coats for the fashion industry, is wildly out of step in a world facing the existential threat of a changing climate.

A few years ago, I traveled to the harp seal nursery by boat to film the commercial seal hunt. At the end of the day, on the eve of the slaughter, I got onto an ice floe where a lone baby seal rested. I sat with her as the sun went down, watching the ocean from a seal’s perspective. Even then, the ice was so broken up, with vast expanses of open water everywhere. In that moment, I came to understand the enormous struggle these young animals face as their sea ice habitat melts away. It was unthinkable that in just hours, sealers would move in and kill these majestic creatures for their fur, in the largest slaughter of marine mammals on Earth.

Right now, the Canadian government has an opportunity to rethink its approach and help protect these seals for future generations. Indeed, the global community is demanding it do so. The killing simply needs to stop—before it is too late.

Humane Society International, Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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  1. Sylvia Lewis Gunning says:

    I’ve been on this atrocious ‘case’ for decades, and sadly, Canada and its government doesn’t seem to care one whit about the horrific manner which thise divine animals are treated…(disposed of).
    THAT issue alone has been the one major factor in my decision to NOT go or move to Canada. Any government that allows such a nightmare to persist..deacde after decade is no place for civilized people. SHAME ON CANADA FOR PERPETUATING THIS UNACCEPTABLE PRACTICE…CLAIMING IT’S “FOR THE FISHERMEN”.

  2. Alan Alejandro Maldonado Ortiz says:

    Esta inhumanidad y crueldad tiene que acabar ya no es justo lo que estos animalitos tienen que vivir ya no mas violencia

  3. Christopher Van Norden says:

    Thank You So Much for sharing this wrenchingly honest reflection, regarding the inherent cruelty of the industrial Harp Seal slaughter, Ms. Aldworth. I am so grateful for your bravery and fortitude, in witnessing this horrific event so many years, and exposing the heartbreaking suffering endured by these precious creatures.

    I particularly appreciate your explanation of how the unique behavior and life cycle of Harp Seals, exacerbates the inhumanity of the killing. For example, I find it both scientifically fascinating and emotionally moving how young Harp Seals situated on the ice or a beach, will instinctively simply stiffen their bodies when frightened or injured by a human being. Their gentle reaction starkly contrasts with comparable responses of members of other seal species, whose instinct is to defend themselves in what way they are able.

    Thank You again for citing many resonant and relevant details of Harp
    Seal biology, in crafting your heartfelt and convincing plea for ending the annual industrial massacres. I genuinely hope this essay helps further raise public consciousness of the ongoing reprehensible practice, building palpable momentum towards permanently banning it.

  4. Sam Crossley says:

    Stop the seal commercial hunting now!

  5. Brittany says:


  6. Joseph says:

    That’s cruel and who would do that to such a creature. Seals Help keep the world in balance. Without seals they would go extinct!

  7. LukeC says:

    An even sadder truth is that they claim its to “save their fishing industry” because they made the “clever” observation that seals eat fish so therefor, seals are the cause of reduced fish. Even though they are clearly just using it as an excuse to over-fish. These poor animals aren’t just dying for their fur, But because a group of people refuses to admit that they are wrong at any cost.

  8. Rhonda Migdal says:

    Public outcry stopped commercial whale slaughter in 1986. It’s time for an Outraged public to cryout again AND boycott Canada until she STOPS the Slaughter.

  9. Evan Boogaart says:

    Seal pups are not killed. The killing of a sea pup described in this article is a FEDERAL CRIME. Should anyone spot such conduct, you can report it to the local authorities. Marine Mammal Regulations, (SOR/93-56), art. 27 states: « No person other than a beneficiary shall sell, trade or barter a whitecoat or blueb »

    art. 8 and 28 mandates ethical treatment and hunt of seal to reduce their pain, in a similar way we slaughter animals.

    « 8- No person shall attempt to kill a marine mammal except in a manner that is designed to kill it quickly. »

    Art. 28 mandates the use of a club, hatapik or rifle that will kill the seal quickly.

    I love seals more than any other animal and I do find it questionable to kill them simply because we destroyed our fisheries and now the astounding 400,000 to 1 million + seal population in Canada is emptying what little we left in our fisheries, but you have to stay to the facts. That’s why I am vegetarian and almost never ate fish in my life. But have a critical mind and state the facts, even if you are an activist.

    Also, please allow indigenous communities like the inuits to hunt seals in their longstanding ethical methods. We have done enough of a cultural or physical genocide on natives of these lands.

    • Evan Boogaart says:

      Actually it is well passed 8 million seals we have in Canada, making them one of the most abundant sea mammals species

  10. Gera Edmund says:

    The Inuit people need these seals for food and sustenance. They are sustainable and use every part of the seal. They don’t overfish because they know their livelihood depends on the seal population. Too many ignorant people bandwagon this cause because it makes organizations tons of money with a cute animal at the front of their argument. What about the endangered species? We need a better push for actually at risk species than trying to act like you can control someone else’s culture.

  11. Daisy Buchanan says:

    Inuit in the year 2023 do not depend on seal meat for sustenance. Educate yourself before you post ignorant non-facts.

    • Carla says:

      I suggest you (and at everybody reading this post) to see the documentary “Angry Inuk” by Alethia Arnaquq Baril to understand more the reality of these communities. It’s available on You Tube! 🙂

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