The Canadian Harp Seal Dilemma



CASE NAME: Harp Seal and Trade


  1. The Issue
  2. The Description
  3. Related Cases
  4. Draft Author
  5. Discourse and Status
  6. Forum and Scope
  7. Decision Breadth
  8. Legal Standing
  9. Geography
  10. Type of Habitat
  11. Type of Measure
  12. Direct vs. Indirect Impacts
  13. Relation of Measure to Impact
  14. Trade Product Identification
  15. Economic Data
  16. Degree of Competitive Impact
  17. Industry Sector
  18. Exporter and Importer
  19. Environmental Problem Type
  20. Species Information
  21. Impact and Effect
  22. Urgency and Lifetime
  23. Substitutes
  24. Culture
  25. Human Rights
  26. Trans-Boundary Issues
  27. Relevant Literature


    1. The Issue

    Canadian Harp Seals are being killed by the thousands per year. The Canadian Government, under the direction of Brian Tobin, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, announced on December 18, 1995 that the total allowable catch (TAC) of harp seals in Canada for the 1996 seal harvest would be increased to 250,000.( MFO, p. 1) This is an increase of 64,000 from the TAC of186,000 in 1995.(Lavigne, p. 1) Animal protection agencies around the world, like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society(USA), the International Marine Mammal Association (IMMA, Canada), and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW, England) are clamoring for further investigations into these mass killings, particularly the motivations behind them. The animal protection agencies offer interested parties statistics and scientific facts as to why these killings are detrimental, cruel, and unfounded. On the other side of the debate are the Canadian officials from the Ministry of Fisheries who offer the same type of evidence as do the environmental agencies except their statistics and facts lead to the opposite conclusions. This clash of evidence makes it exceedingly difficult to form an opinion on the issues. Those who are studying the problem are met with a blatant dilemma. Which side of the argument has generated the accurate data?

    2. Description

    There is one more component of this problem that must also be elucidated from the outset. This component surfaces when one asks the question: "What is the Canadian government and or the individual seal hunters doing with these slaughtered seals? This is where the trade aspect comes into play. Though the dead seals serve many functions one of the most controversial uses for seal parts is evidenced in the trade of seal penises to Chinese markets where this seal part is marketed as an aphrodisiac. Like many aspects of the harp seal dilemma, the Chinese aphrodisiac trade involving harp seals is exceedingly difficult to research due to the covert nature of a lot of the transactions; however, there are some activists who have offered proof that these transactions have, indeed, transpired. The seal problem in Canada is far from resolution. In fact, this year more seals were clubbed to death, dynamited, or shot than any other year in Canadian territory.

    To understand the multiple issues related to the seal harvest in Canada, it is necessary to divide the evidence into two camps. On one side there is the information offered by the animal protection agencies and interest groups who are adamantly opposed to the deadly reality faced by the harp seal population. The other side is represented by those who believe the seal harvest is essential and should continue to grow en masse in the coming years (i.e. Canadian Ministry of Fishery and Newfoundland fishermen). Reflective of this division, the following description of the issue itself will be separated into the two respective camps: those for the seal harvest, and those against the seal harvest. Pursuant to the scope of this particular assignment, I will not go into great detail on all of the components of the harp seal dilemma; yet, it is crucial to remember that the interplay of all of these disparate components is what makes this issue so difficult to both comprehend and resolve.

    The Anti-Harp Seal Harvest Camp

    The two most vocal groups in opposition to the harp seal harvest are the IMMA and the IFAW. Both of these groups, along with several other smaller groups, have conducted vast research on this specific issue. These groups allege that the harp seal population is being exploited by the government who is calling for this massacre in order to keep the floundering Newfoundland economy alive. The economy in this region is suffering because of the depletion of cod stocks which used to be the main source of revenue for these fishermen. This leads to the first point of discord between the environmentalists and the Canadian government.

    The first point of contention concerns the depleting stores of cod in the Northern Canadian waters. Those who oppose the seal hunt remain that seals have nothing to do with the fact that the cod industry is withering.

    Brian Davies, the man who founded the IFAW in response to the "slaughter of baby harp seals", argues that despite the fact that "70% of Canadians are opposed to killing harp seals" the Canadian government continues to endorse it (IFAW) . Though the Canadian government claims that the seals must be killed in order to keep the cod fish stock thriving, Davies states that "scientific studies have repeatedly shown that this is nonsense, as on average less than 1% of seal's diet is cod."(IFAW) A related study conducted by the International Wildlife Coalition has demonstrated that over "97 Fishery Biologists and Researchers from Canada and 15 countries around the world" have concluded that "the cod fish industry is shrinking as a result of over fishing NOT the seals."( MFO (Fred Miffin), p. 1) Furthermore, at the Eleventh Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, held in Orlando, FL from 14-18 December 1995, "ninety-seven scientists from at least 15 countries signed onto a petition" which stated that:

    As professionals in the field of marine mammal biology we disagree with the Canadian government's statement that North Atlantic seals are a 'conservation problem'. All scientific efforts to find an effect of seal predation on Canadian groundfish stocks have failed to show any impact. Overfishing remains the only scientifically demonstrated conservation problem related to the fish stock collapse. If fishing closures continue, the indicates that the stocks will recover, and killing seals will not speed that process. (IMMA (Lavigne), p.1)

    Not only does the research suggest that harp seals are not to blame for dwindling cod supplies, the IMMA insists that harp seals "spend probably less than 50% of the year in areas where interactions with Canadian commercial fisheries can occur.(IMMA, The Facts), p.2) Moreover, The IMMA refutes the claim that fewer harp seals translates into more fish. Conversely, the IMMA posits that only in a "simplified food web" would removing the top predator result in a larger supply of prey. In this case, which involves a complex ecosystem in the Northwest Atlantic, a drop in the existence of a top predator can have multiple consequences "including a decrease in the species of commercial importance." (IMMA, The Facts), p. 2)

    Another point of discord concerns the harp seal population itself. The number of harp seals that comprise the population are at issue for both groups. This is of key importance, some argue that the harp seal population is in danger of extinction, thus it should be protected. The harp seal population has been estimated at somewhere between 2.7 - 3.5 million animals with the annual production of seal pups at 580,000.(Wialliamson, p. 1) It is important to note that this figure comes from the 1990 census formulated by overflight pictures in Northwest Canadian territory and normal pregnancy patterns. The protectionist groups argue that with a rise in the TAC and the diminishing food stores for the seals, the population is at risk. The opposing camp refutes this claim, reemphasizing that the seals jeopardize the cod.

    The third, and most controversial, component of the harp seal debate centers around whether or not the seal killing and the use of the seal corpses is indeed "humane". This is where the sale of seal penises to China as aphrodisiacs comes into play. But first it is important to describe exactly how these 250,000 seals are terminated. The various agencies against the seal harvest all agree on this issue: there is no such thing as a humane seal harvest. As recounted by the IFAW, the Canadian government "has decided to pay a bounty of 20 cents per pound of seal meat that is landed" and has given "sports hunters approval to join in the killing."(IFAW (Moliterno), p. 1) As far as the sports hunters are concerned, the IFAW reports that "sports hunters will have to pay just $10 for their license and will each be allowed to land six seals."(IFAW (Moliterno), p. 1) The most problematic facet of the hunt for these opposition groups is that often seals are shot at random from ships and not all of the dead seals are recovered. Some of these wounded seals are left to find their fate sealed in the icy Canadian waters. The IFAW stated in a release dated February 24, 1995:

    You are going to get a pack of amateurs with a blood lust and their six packs of beer going on a shooting spree near where the seal pups are born. Under the law they can kill any pup over two weeks old. This slaughter for fun goes beyond anything that has ever been allowed before. It is dehumanizing and degrading.(IFAW (Moliterno), p. 1)

    In addition, these sports hunters can land up to six seals for "personal use"; however, there is no limit on the amount of seals these same hunters are allowed to shoot.( IFAW (China Trade), p. 1) The IFAW reports that "hundreds of new 'sports' licenses have been issued and more than 2,000 people have taken a special course on how to kill seals." (IFAW, China Trade), p.1) Some of the seals are shot while others are beaten to death with large wooden clubs. It has been said that "76 percent of seals that are shot may not be recovered from the water" resulting in "many more being killed than are recorded in official government figures." (IFAW, China Trade), p. 1)

    The main issue that has added fuel to the fire of these rampant killings of harp seals is the economic and/or trade aspect. It is becoming common knowledge to those involved in the issue that the China trade is a thriving factor in this debate. Seal penises are being sold in Chinese markets because of their alleged benefit as an aphrodisiac in East-Asian markets. Pursuant to the most recent reports from the Marine Mammas Research and Conservation Discussion, seal penises are "made into cocktails and potions at the notorious child brothels of so-called "sex-port" centers catering to the beliefs, strong in Asia, that sex with very young persons can restore youth; that sex with children avoids AIDS; and that men of enhanced virility sire sons." (MMRCD, p. 1) In fact, these seal penises are "dried and powdered as an oral remedy for male impotence for markets in Asia."(ARRS, p. 1) The Sea Shepherd Archive offered evidence that "in mid-march 1995 it was confirmed by the fish processing plants, that over 10,000 seal penises were sold in 1994, to the Asian market." (Sea Shepherd Archive, p.1) These penises fetch a price of about $130-$170 a piece n the current market which is lucrative when considering that the pelt, meat, and oli of a seal go for approximately $20. (MMRCD, p. 2) The IFAW offers the most comprehensive evidence of the seal penis trade with China. The IFAW drew the majority of its evidence from the talks between officials from China's Shanghai Fisheries Corporation and an eight-strong delegation representing the sealing industry from the Magdalen islands in Northwest Canada.

    In 1994 Shanghai Fisheries bought 50,000 seals from Canada's Terra Nova Fishery LTD. in Newfoundland.( IFAW (China Trade), p. 1) The IFAW believes that the Canadian government has assumed an active role in expanding this trade market in China. Because of the European import ban on baby seal products (1983) and a closed US market due to import restrictions resultant from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Canadian government has been unable to sell seal meat to fur companies raising fox and mink. So, alternatively, the Canadian government has turned its economic hopes toward Chinese markets. The IFAW responded to the actions promoted by the Canadian government by sending film crews to the Magdalen islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to take footage of the seal hunt in progress. What these crews saw was abhorrent to the protectionist agencies around the world. The footage shows "seals being shot and butchered". (IFAW (China Trade), p. 2) The sealers would "slice open the animals, cut out the penis and the testicles of the males" and then "take off the pelt, blubber, and meat." (IFAW (China Trade), p. 2) The IFAW notes that "Canada is also trying to develop a market within China for health oil derived from seal blubber." (IFAW (China Trade), p. 2)

    The IFAW has responded to the continual sale of seal parts by encouraging Tesco, a major supermarket chain in the UK, to stop selling fish in protest to the slaughter of the baby seals. This boycott and other such initiatives on behalf of the other opposition groups haven't had a corrective effect. The main problem surrounding the seal trade with China is the paucity of data due to Canada's covert dealings with China, and the outdated figures (mostly 1994 figures) of the past transactions between China and Canada.

    The Pro-Harp Seal Harvest Camp

    The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans (MFO) of Canada is the primary voice in favor of the seal harvest and the increases in the TAC. The MFO has a very different stance than do the protectionists on the cod issue. The MFO believes that the seals are a very real threat to already dwindling cod stores. Even the Canadian High Commissioner in the UK, Mr. Royce Frith, wrote that , "--a massive, increasing (harp seal) herd with an appetite which is disastrous for the regeneration of depleted cod and other white fish stocks...If the herd carries on unchecked, there will be no fish left for anyone." (IMMA (Lavigne), p. 1) The Minister of Supply and Services in Canada published a release in 1995 stating that "Approximately 1,2 million tonnes of Arctic cod and 88,000 tonnes of Atlantic cod are eaten by harp seals in the waters of Newfoundland". (Ministery of Supply and Services, Canada, p.1) This 1.2 million measure plus the added 88,000 forms the base of the cod argument for the MFO. Here is one example of the clashing evidence between both groups. One side offering evidence that cod is in fact a major portion of the diet of the harp seal, while the other side in opposition refuting that very position. This is why this issue is so hard to fully comprehend. The science branch of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Center in Newfoundland, reported that harp seals in the Northwest Atlantic have increases consumption of prey from 3.6 million tonnes in 1981 to 6.9 million tons in 1994.(NAFC (Stenson), p. 5) The MFO research committee found that a recent consumption analysis proved that "harp seals ate an estimated 6.0 million tonnes of fish and other prey last year including 142,000 tonnes of Atlantic cod; overall, representing one billion Atlantic cod eaten by harp seals." (MFO (Mewdell), p. 1) Brian Tobin, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada sums up the stance on Cod stores and harp seals when he stated that it is "...intellectually dishonest to claim that seals have not had an impact on recovering fish stocks...There is only one major player fishing that stock, he said, and his first name is Harp and his second name is Seal." (HNA, p.

    The second point of contention that must be addressed is the size of the seal population itself. Unlike the aforementioned estimate of 2.7-3.5 million forwarded by the opposition, the pro-harvest camp has come up with a population figure of 4.8 million for the same year.(NAFC (Stenson),p.4) They argue that the seal population is growing by leaps and bounds and without some form of population control, the seals will overly tax the environment, especially the cod stores. The MFO stated that the seal population in Canada is growing by about a quarter of a million per year.(MFO (Mewdell), p. 1) They further insinuate that "the number of seals that can be harvested without changing the total population, is approximately 287,000 (95% C.I. 208,000 - 293,000). (NAFC,Stenson, p. 5) This is the argument behind the increase in the TAC to 250,000. As of April 17, 1996, 185,000 harp seals had already been taken, and this was before the complete seal harvest season was over.

    The third issue of controversy revolves around the question of humanity. Could there be such a thing as a humane seal harvest, and if so what about the trade with China for seal parts? Is that legitimate government action? Obviously, the pro-harvest group believes that the seal harvest is humane because it is salvaging the future of the cod while ensuring that these seal population is not hurt beyond its replacement capacity. They believe that they have taken steps to ensure that the seal harvest is humane because the dead seals are put to use in a variety of ways, so the bodies are not wasted. It is interesting to note that in the discourse of the MFO, the China trade of seal penises is ignored for the most part. It is ignored, but not denied. The MFO makes mention of the China trade only to say that it is not the primary market that is being explored in the sealing industry. The government points to their tight regulation of the seal harvest to demonstrate that the harvest is not random but is humane. Here are a few of the regulations that were released by the MFO on April 16, 1996 on how to collect the remaining 65,000 seals of the TAC of 250,000 this year:

    • Vessels 35 feet and larger will have a total quota of 25,000 seals. Each vessel will have a quota of 300 seals for the Labrador and the east coast; and license holders must have their licenses amended before harvesting these seals.
    • A quota of 30,000 seals has been established for vessels less than 35 feet for the Labrador and east coast.
    • A quota of 2,000 seals have been established for personal use licenses in Newfoundland and Labrador.
    • A total quota of 8,000 seals has been established for personal the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including commercial and personal use licenses. (MFO (Hickey), p. 1)
    As for the alleged "sports hunt" criticized by opponents to the seal harvest, the High North Alliance (HNA) defend their position writing:
    There is no "sports" hunt of seals and no such license exists. Only two types of licenses are issued annually. Commercial licenses, which are awarded each year, involve stringent licensing requirements which are rigorously enforced. These requirements include training as well as regulations to ensure a safe and humane harvest. Personal use licenses are awarded only to certified residents living in communities adjacent to established sealing areas in Newfoundland and parts of Quebec. These individuals are permitted to harvest annually up to six seals for food.(IFAW (Your Right), p. 2)

    And on the issue of the trade with China, the Canadian government "is publicly opposed to the killing of seals for the purpose of taking only their male organs." (IFAW (Your Right), p. 2) In fact, the HNA has put forth a series of ideas for the possible use of seal meat and fur. Here are just a few of their ideas:

    Seal Meat:
    • Canned seal meat
    • Seal Salami
    • Seal Pepperoni
    • Seal Sausage - Garlic, Italian, Regular
    • Seal Stew
    • Seal Pies
    • Seal prime cuts
    • Seal Pate
    • Seal jerky
    • pies - tortes
    Seal Leather/ Suede:
    • Briefcase and attaché
    • Purses, wallets
    • Office needs - time diaries, business card cases
    • Jackets/Coats
    • Vest
    • Ties (DFO, p.1-2)
    The fact is that most of the seal meat does not go toward human consumption. The small segment that is consumed by humans consists of the "6,000 frozen flipper pies per year."(MMRCD, p. 2) The monetary reward from the seal industry is an undeniable asset to the Northwest Canadian economy that has been suffering due to depleted stores of many types of fish, cod in particular. John Efford, the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture wrote that the gains would sum up to about "$10 million", not to mention the gains in employment.(MFO, p. 1)

    3. Related Cases - Keywords:

    2. CANCOD
    3. BEAR
    4. USCHINA
    5. EUMEAT
    6. MADCOW
    8. ESKIMO

    4.Draft Author:

    Francie Makris. December 1996

    B. Legal Cluster:

    There are no legal rules at this time surrounding the seal harvest except for those regulations that the Canadian government has set forth to ensure a "humane" seal harvest. These regulations can be referenced in the description portion of this analysis.

    5.Discourse and Status:

    The status of the case is clouded by controversy especially in reference to the China seal penis trade. There is no legal action aimed at either side. Due to the contradictory nature of the facts as forwarded by the two camps, it is almost impossible to know who is right. There hasn't been a negotiated treaty to end this trade and slaughter of harp seals in Canada to date. Some countries like the EU and the USA have stopped any seal trading due to legal acts like the CITES treaty; however, the seal harvest continues and new markets are being explored for the sale of seal products .
    Status: Allegation

    6.Forum and Scope:

    This problem involves the domestic law of Canada as well as the domestic laws of its trading partners, like China. If the Chinese government continues to expand in the trade of seals parts with Canada, they may risk retaliation from one of their other trading partners who are opposed to the seal harvest, i.e. the EU and/or the USA. There are international agreements and bilateral agreements; however, the Canadian government has managed to get around these obstacles.

    7. Decision Breadth

    Number of parties Affected:
    • Canada
    • China
    • Namibia (also involved in the seal trade)
    • The EU, the USA, who are opposed to the seal harvest

    8. Legal Standing:

    There is no formalized legal standing to this case at this stage. The issue has surfaced as a propaganda war between the two opposing camps. There has yet to be any type of treaty on the particular case of the Canadian Harp seals (not including baby seal litigation).

    9. Geography:

    In terms of trading parties, this case involves Canada and China, as well as other countries who will potentially trade with Canada once the new uses for seal meat and pelt are established. In terms of the species itself, harp seals inhabit waters bordering Canada, Newfoundland, Hawaii, and Namibia.

    a. Continental Domain: North America

    b. Geographic Site: Northern North America

    c. Geographic Impact: Canada

    10. Sub-National Factors:

    There are several subnational factors involved in this dilemma. For example, the Fishery groups within Canada, particularly in the Magdalen Islands are foisting the contraversey within the domestic politics of Canada where there is division between animal rightists and those who support the seal hunt.

    11. Type of Habitat: Cool

    12. Type of Measure:

    Import Ban

    13. Direct vs. Indirect Impacts:

    Direct. If this issue were to be resolved, there would be both direct and indirect effects. There would be trade impacts that are direct, and environmental impacts that are indirect. If the seal population is, indeed, at risk, then the destruction of a species is an indirect impact. If Canada or China faces sanctions from the EU (including the Tesco Boycotts) or the USA there will be direct trading impacts.

    14. Relation of Measure To Impact

    a. Directly Related To Product: There have been no formal measures taken as of yet, except those legal regulations taken by the Canadian government to increase the TAC. So, at this stage it is very difficult to measure this impact.

    15. Trade Product Identification

    Product Type: SEAL

    16. Economic Data

    Due to the covert nature of the trade of seal penises with China, I was not able to find any hard economic data on the quantification of the trade itself.
    Industry Output: $10 million in profits to the Canadian government from the seal harvest.

    17. Degree of Competitive Impact


    18. Industry Sector: FOOD

    19. Exporter and Importer: CANADA and CHINA

    20. Environmental Problem Type

    Species Loss

    21. Species Information

    The two species at risk in this dilemma are the harp seals that are being harvested, and the cod which may be threatened if the harp seal population continues unchecked.
    Name of species: Pinnipedia Phocidae Type: Harp Seals Diversity: Focus is on the Canadian Harp Seals, though there are other types of harp seals that live off the coast of Hawaii and Namibia. IUCN Status: According to the opposition, the status is endangered, or at least vulnerable. The FMO would argue that the species is not at risk, but rather threatens the cod as a species.

    22. Impact and Effect

    23. Urgency and Lifetime: Low and 5-10 years

    24. Substitutes

    In the case of the trade with China, perhaps an aphrodisiac substitute could be manufactured that would not make it necessary to remove the penis from dead harp seals. My research did not guide me in that direction, however, so I am not aware if any such substitutes exist or would be viable on the Asian market. Still, it is crucial to note, that even if these substitutes do exist, the harvest would most likely continue. The government is exploring new avenues to market the seal meat, so there will not be a reason to terminate the harvest due solely to the formation of substitutes in Asian markets.

    25. Culture

    Yes, culture has an undeniable role in this debate, especially the third component which is the China trade. Obviously, the fact that the Chinese culture believes that the seal penis has value as an aphrodisiac is a cultural value. Many countries around the world would find this belief ludicrous, thus they would readily ask for termination of this procedure. But, to a Chinese culture who believe in its medicinal value as an aphrodisiac, this request for termination would be a denial of free trade. The fact that the part that is taken from the seal is the penis adds another dimension to this issue. Most western cultures would find the slaughtering of an animal for its penis a cruel and unusual method of ensuring trade success in another country. The exploitation of an animal for one of its parts has long been frowned upon (See Shark Fin Case).There is also the culture of the fishermen in Canada who find no problem in exploiting excess seal stores to buttress their withering economy. They cite the seal harvest as part of their culture.

    26. Human Rights

    Yes. The opposition could argue, with questionable degrees of persuasiveness, that the prohibition of a seal harvest is a violation of their human rights. It would inhibit one of their first generation right, the right to life. Without an economy, and a hope for sustenance through cod fisheries that are now depleted, they have no recourse but to market the harp seals. Why should they be denied their human right to exploit the resources at their disposal, especially since that resource is in no danger of extinction. The opposition would scoff at this argument, of course, reemphasizing their theory that the harp seals are indeed at risk due to the increasing TAC in seal harvesting.

    27. Trans-Boundary Issues: Yes Some transboundary issues due to the cultural prong of the issue. The fact that this is a western market intermingling with an eastern market, the regulations, and the philosophy behind them, differ along cultural lines.

    28. Relevant Literature: Bibliography Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Ministry of Fisheries): M: News Releases: January 26, 1995, October 20, 1995, July 12, 1996, April 16, 1996, October 2, 1995, December 18, 1995.

    International Marine Mammal Association(IMMA):http://www. Animal 195/4/Marine_Mammals.htm: Lavigne, David. "Mr. Seal gets all the stick for Atlantic Fish Dilemma." BBC Wildlife Vol.4, No.2, p. 61. Februar1996. Lavigne, David. "Ecological Interactions: the Facts about Seals and Cod In the the Nortwest Atlantic.", p. 1-3. Lavigne,David. "The Sudden Ecologist." BBC Wildlife Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 57, January 1996. Lavigne, David. "Seals and Fisheries, Science and Politics."

    International Fund For Animal Welfare(IFAW):,ok/ifaw/seals.htm: "Chinese Trade Deal with Canadians Threatens World's Seals With Extinction, Says IFAW." April 9, 1995, p. 1-2. "Your Right To Know: Canadian Fish." Source: A Leaflet published by the Co-op supermarkets in the UK, 1995; p.1-2. Moliterno, Tom. "Canadians Pay Blood Money and Allow Fun Hunt." February 24, 1995, p. 1-2.

    Sea Sheperd Archive (ARRS): Sea Shepherd Conservation Society:"Help the Seal Sheoherds Stop Canada's Seal Slaughter."

    Marine Mammals Research and Conservation Discussion (MMRCD): "Canada Revives Seal Massacre." Reprinted from ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1995)

    Top of the Page