For the last decade, The HSUS and Humane Society International staff has braved extreme weather conditions and hostile sealers to expose the commercial sealing industry’s mass clubbing and shooting of baby seals in Atlantic Canada. We’ve encouraged journalists, scientists, members of the European Parliament, and other key players to come to the ice floes to see exactly what happens, and to help us tell the world about the inhumane killing and waste of marine life.
Our work, along with the footage and other documentation we’ve shared, has resulted in the closing of much of the global market for seal products. In fact, earlier this year, an appellate panel of the World Trade Organization established that animal welfare is a legitimate criterion for restricting trade, largely upholding the European Union’s critical ban on trade in products of commercial seal hunts.
As a result of this global campaign, prices for seal skins in Canada have crashed, and it’s only because of multi-pronged subsidies provided by the country's provincial and federal governments that some sealers continue to participate in the annual slaughter. Despite the government’s efforts to prop up the hunt through subsidies, we’ve helped spare more than 1.8 million baby seals since 2009 alone. The government sets quotas and each year commercial sealers fall far short because there are so few remaining markets for seal products.
Now, faced with a global revolt over the images of seal killing, the sealing industry has taken a page out of the playbook of American animal-use industries. Its leadership want to make it a crime to take pictures or video of the hunt. Last week, Dion Dakins, CEO of the largest seal processor in Canada, called for a bill to outlaw independent observation of the commercial seal hunt. In testimony before the Canadian House of Commons Fisheries Committee, he recommended that the government stop issuing licenses to observe the seal hunt and that observers be required to remain at least one nautical mile away from sealing activities. He further recommended that all observers be required to carry an electronic locator.
The proposal brings to mind the numerous “ag-gag” measures that agribusiness leaders have advanced in 20 states during the last two years, and their convoluted ways of suppressing the truth about animal cruelty on factory farms. Of course, the factory farms are private facilities, and the ice floes where sealers slaughter baby animals are in the open ocean, which is no one’s property.
Indeed, animal abusers count upon concealment and physical separation to get away with their deeds. But The HSUS and HSI, whether through our undercover investigations at factory farms or our Protect Seals unit going to the very edge of the continent to document abuse, won’t have any of that. We are trying to connect people to the reality of what’s occurring, and asking people of conscience to honor their values and do something about it.
The response of the industry and the state to suppress information and routine practices in industry is an admission that they cannot win the argument. Animal abuse is not portable, so they cannot take it somewhere and hide it. But they can try to wall it off, either with physical structures or physical distance, and try to get police and Coast Guard officials to enforce that standard.
What Mr. Dakins and his political supporters are proposing is that non-governmental organizations, the media and scientists—unless they are sanctioned by the very government department tasked with promoting commercial sealing—be prevented from documenting, studying, and reporting on an activity that involves a commodity they want to sell to consumers. This cynical move would not only undermine one of the most important foundations of any democracy — freedom of the press and access to information – it would also blatantly violate Canadian law. Canada's commercial seal slaughter occurs in public space that belongs to all Canadians, and the right to document and report on what happens there is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In the decade we have documented this slaughter, we have been attacked by sealers, harassed by authorities, and mobbed by industry supporters. From questionable regulations effectively preventing access to the killing areas to repeated efforts to dramatically increase the distance at which observers must remain from sealers, the sealing industry and the Canadian government have done everything in their power to make it impossible for us to film the annual bloodbath that happens in eastern Canada. We have persevered because if our cameras stop rolling, the seal slaughter will go on in secret, and that is exactly what the sealing industry wants.
And we are not going anywhere until we stop this slaughter. If the sealing industry wants the public to buy its products, it needs to be prepared for independent scrutiny of its production methods. If the industry is truly doing nothing wrong, it has nothing to fear from the NGOs and reporters who film the killing.