October 17 2008
Seal hunters approach their vessel off Prince Edward Island in February 2008. (CBC)
A judge has found five animal-rights activists not guilty of getting too close to seal hunters during the 2006 hunt off Canada's east coast.
The five were charged with coming within 10 metres of seal hunters on March 26, 2006, while filming the annual slaughter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not far from Cape Breton.
"It is extremely difficult on the seas ... to figure out the distance [between boats]," Quebec Judge Jean-Paul Décoste said in handing down the decision Friday.
There are "few or no reference points on which to rely," he said.
The five defendants are representatives of Humane Society International and Humane Society of the United States. Canadians Rebecca Aldworth and Andrew Plumbly; Americans Chad Sisneros and Pierre Grzybowski; and British citizen Mark Glover all pleaded not guilty.
The charge of violating terms of an observer permit under the Marine Mammal Regulations carries a maximum fine of $100,000.
The trial was held on Îles de la Madeleine and Décoste's decision was broadcast in Toronto via teleconference.
Clayton Ruby, one of Canada's best-known defence lawyers, represented the five.
Earlier, federal prosecutors had dropped a charge of obstructing the hunt.
The 2006 hunt was marked by high-profile protests by pop music superstar Paul McCartney and retired French actress Brigitte Bardot.
On the ice floes, there were frequent clashes between sealers and protesters opposed to the hunt, which the federal government insists is a humane enterprise that brings much-needed cash to families that supplement their meagre incomes during the winter.
Animal welfare activists say the annual commercial hunt is cruel and provides little economic benefit once government costs associated with policing and supporting the hunt are factored in.
CANADIAN SEAL HUNT
MYTHS AND REALITIES
Myth #1: The Canadian government allows sealers to kill whitecoat seals.
Reality: The image of the whitecoat harp seal is used prominently by seal hunt opponents. This image gives the false impression that vulnerable whitecoat pups are targeted by sealers during the commercial hunt.
The hunting of harp seal pups (whitecoats) and hooded seal pups (bluebacks) is illegal – and has been since 1987. The Marine Mammal Regulations prohibit the trade, sale or barter of the fur of these pups. The seals that are hunted are self-reliant, independent animals.
Myth #2: Seals are being skinned alive.
Reality: A 2002 independent veterinarians’ report published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal
Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed; however seals have a swimming reflex that is active – even after death. This reflex gives the false impression that the animal is still alive when it is clearly dead – similar to the reflex in chickens. and numerous reports mentioned by the Malouf Commission (1987) indicate that this is not true.
Myth #3: The club – or hakapik – is a barbaric and inhumane tool that has no place in today’s world.
Reality: Hunting methods were studied by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing in Canada and it found that the clubbing of seals, when properly performed, is at least as humane as, and often more humane than, the killing methods used in commercial slaughterhouses, which are accepted by the majority of the public.
A 2002 report published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that the club or hakapik is an efficient tool designed to kill the animal quickly and humanely.
Myth #4: The Canadian government is allowing sealers to kill thousands of seals to help with the recovery of cod stocks.
Reality: Several factors have contributed to the lack of recovery of Atlantic cod stocks, such as fishing effort, poor growth and physical condition of the fish, and environmental changes.
In addition, there are many uncertainties in the estimates of the amount of fish consumed by seals. The commercial quota is established on sound conservation principles, not an attempt to assist in the recovery of groundfish stocks.
Myth #5: The hunt is unsustainable and is endangering the harp seal population.
Reality: Since the 1960s, environmental groups have been saying the seal hunt is unsustainable. In fact, the harp seal population is healthy and abundant. The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is currently estimated at 5.5 million animals, nearly triple what it was in the 1970s.
DFO sets quotas at levels that ensure the health and abundance of seal herds. In no way are seals - and harp seals in particular – an “endangered species”.
Myth #6: The seal hunt provides such low economic return for sealers that it is not an economically viable industry.
Reality: Seals are a significant source of income. For some individual sealers and for thousands of families in Eastern Canada at a time of year when other fishing options are limited at best, sealing can represent as much as 35 per cent of a sealer’s annual income in some coastal communities. Sealing also creates employment opportunities for buying and processing plants.
Myth #7: Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) provides subsidies for the seal hunt.
Reality: DFO does not subsidize the seal hunt. Sealing is an economically viable industry. All subsidies ceased in 2001. Even before that time, any subsidies provided were for market and product development, including a meat subsidy, to encourage full use of the seal. In fact, government has provided much less subsidization to the sealing industry than recommended by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing.
Myth #8: The seal hunt is loosely monitored and DFO doesn’t punish illegal hunting activity or practices.
Reality: The seal hunt is closely monitored and tightly regulated. Fishery Officers conduct surveillance of the hunt by means of aerial patrols, surface (vessel) patrols, dockside inspections of vessels at landing sites and inspections at buying and processing facilities.
Infractions are taken seriously and sealers who fail to comply with Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations are penalized. The consequences of such illegal actions could include court-imposed fines and the forfeiting of catches, fishing gear, vessels and licences.
Myth #9: The majority of Canadians are opposed to the seal hunt.
Reality: Animal rights groups currently campaigning against the seal hunt cite a 2004 Ipsos Reid poll stating that the majority of Canadians are opposed to the hunt. In fact, Canadians support federal policies regarding the seal hunt. An Ipsos-Reid survey conducted in February 2005 concluded that 60 per cent of Canadians are in favour of a responsible hunt.