Ocean waves pound on the sides as a lone seal pup sleeps on a frail ice floe. He’s only two weeks old and can’t swim for lengthy periods of time, thus he won’t be able to survive without this ice platform. However, the delicate floe is melting quickly, and storms are hastening its demise.
He is thrown into the frigid water, along with thousands of other immature pups in the vicinity, within days. There, he battles ocean swells and waves, severe winds, and cold rain as he tries to swim. He is extremely fortunate and, despite all chances, makes it to another ice slab. One of the few surviving pups in this area, he drags himself onto it. He lies down for a few days, exhausted.
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.
This article by Rebecca Aldworth was first published by A Humane World on 19 April 2022. Lead Image: Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada, visits a harp seal nursery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. Michael Bernard/HSI. 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.
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