A couple of weeks ago I received two emails.
The first referred to a report in the Guardian, containing the disturbing news that this year the Arctic summer sea ice reached its lowest extent since satellite recording began in the 1970s, and probably its lowest extent for at least 8,000 years. German researchers, from the Institute of Environmental Physics, warn that human-induced climate change has led to a 50 percent retreat of Arctic sea ice over the past 40 years.
The second email contained a statement by the Canadian Sealers Association, announcing they intend to continue efforts to expand markets in Russia and China for Canadian harp seal products. Their determination to profit from seal hunt cruelty comes despite the European General Court's recent rejection of a challenge to the European Union's 2009 ban on seal products.
Whilst these two items might at first glance appear unrelated, they highlight the relentless pressure we are putting on the Arctic system in general, and Arctic mammals in particular.
Harp seals spend most of their lives at sea, feeding in Arctic waters. Females will haul out onto sea-ice to give birth in late February. They feed their pups for 12 short days, thereafter abandoning them on the ice where the pups must wait until they are old enough to enter the water, at around 7-8 weeks old, and start to feed themselves. During this time, the seal pups are completely vulnerable.
This notorious killing of these defenceless harp seal pups has become the largest slaughter of marine mammals on Earth. The killing occurs offshore of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence each spring, just a few short weeks after the pups are born, as they cling to their icy nurseries. The baby seals are shot or clubbed to death for their fur and their carcasses are routinely left to rot on the ice. Panic and death are often protracted, and HSI observers have often witnessed seals being cut open whilst responding to pain.
The Canadian government estimates about 6,000 Canadian citizens slaughter seals in this way, and in the vast majority of cases sealing only provides for a very small percentage of these people's annual income. The seal slaughter has been repeatedly condemned as inhumane by both Canadian and international veterinarians and animal protection groups.
Humane Society International (HSI) has campaigned for many years to end this slaughter, on the grounds that it is inherently inhumane. Moreover, the industry is not economically viable and damages Canada's international reputation. In 2009 the European Union, responding to the concerns of its citizens, prohibited trade in products of commercial seal kills, a move which has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of seals being slaughtered. The United States banned the import of seal products in the 1970s.
However, despite growing and compelling international signals that clubbing and shooting seals to death for fur is morally unacceptable, the Canadian authorities continue to support and indeed subsidise the harp seal slaughter. In so doing they are ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence of retreating sea ice affecting the seals' breeding success, repeated documentation of cruelty, falling pelt prices, closing markets, and the lack of either Canadian or international public support.
In 2010, the Canadian government made arguably one of its most cynical moves yet. Despite an early break-up of sea-ice having resulted in a disastrous breeding season for the seals, the government actually increased the quota of harp seals that could be legally killed to 330,000. In the end, only around one tenth of this quota was actually killed but it was a shocking example of the Canadian authorities' complete disregard for the seals.
Although the EU ban has helped to reduce the number of harp seals being killed, the Canadian government is determined to develop new markets in Russia and China. If they succeed, slaughter figures could rise sharply again in the near future. With sea ice retreating further and further each year, any slaughter of seals will only increase the already mounting pressure on populations.
The effects of climate change on the Arctic environment and its species adds a new dimension to the campaign to end the harp seal slaughter. Human history is littered with examples of once abundant wild species hunted to near extinction, but combine hunting with the fast-paced destruction of vital habitats, and harp seals now face a new lethal combination that could signal disaster for them and other Arctic mammals.
If harp seal populations are lost, the Canadian people will lose more than just a beautiful, iconic mammal. They will also lose any hope of benefiting economically from sustainable eco-tourism. For while the seal slaughter makes no economic sense, eco-tourism is a highly profitable and humane alternative.
So I'm left wondering not just how much more blood on the ice there will be before the killing ends, but also how much more ice we have to lose before there are no seals left.
To learn more about the terrible annual Canadian harp seal slaughter, visit the website of Humane Society International.
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