Animal rights groups are crying foul over a bill that would make it more difficult for them to observe the seal hunt, which is set to open later this month in Atlantic Canada.
Bill C-555, or An Act respecting the Marine Mammal Regulations, seeks to increase the distance that unauthorized persons or “unlicenced observers” must maintain from seal harvesters.
The bill, which recently had its second reading, would change the safety distance to a full nautical mile (1.8 km) instead of the present half nautical mile.
Conservative MP Greg Kerr, who introduced the bill last November, says the aim is to protect sealers and hunt observers, show support for the commercial seal hunt, and ensure that seal harvesters can go about their job “without fear of disruption.”
But Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International-Canada, is calling it a “nuisance bill” and an attempt to spread misinformation.
“We are there to document and record what happens, not to obstruct [the seal hunt], and the Canadian government is well aware of that,” she says.
“In the 15 years that I’ve observed the commercial seal hunt at close range I have never once heard of or seen a sealer threatened by an observer in any way, shape, or form. But I have seen countless instances where sealers have attacked observers.”
Aldworth also worries that the bill will punish innocent bystanders such as tourists, wildlife observers, and local residents who unknowingly enter the 1.8 km range of the seal hunt and subsequently incur hefty fines.
“Ultimately there is no practical way for local residents and eco-tourists to know exactly where commercial seal hunting is happening, and when. And yet this bill puts the onus on those residents and tourists to determine that information,” she says, adding that it could curtail the lucrative seal-watching and eco-tourism market.
Currently, anyone can apply to Fisheries and Oceans Canada for a licence to observe the seal harvest. Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Kerr admitted incidents of misusing the licence to disrupt the hunt have been “few and far between” but says there are “radical groups” that remain a threat.
“There are those people who do not want to comply and do not want licences and simply want to disrupt the seal hunt. These are those people we are most concerned with,” he said.
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq both support the bill. Shea said in a statement that it will “help to strengthen our management of the Canadian seal harvest while improving the safety of everyone involved.”
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has also raised concerns about the bill, saying it may be paving the way for a cull of 70,0000–200,0000 grey seals, which the government has long blamed for a lack of fish stock recovery in the southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
It is harp seals that are targeted during the commercial seal hunt. According to IFAW, grey
seals are often encountered on land, and regularly within range of human habitation and coastal
“The introduction of Bill C-555 suggests that a sanctioned cull, or Strategic Targeted Removal (STR) of grey seals is being planned in areas that are within one nautical mile of human activity,” says a Feb. 27 IFAW briefing document.
The Canadian Sealers’ Association did not respond to interview requests by press time, but a statement on the organization’s website supports Bill C-555, saying it meets seal harvesters’ security concerns.