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In 1965, the Canadian government asked then 30-year-old Brian Davies to join a group of consultants to visit the annual seal “hunt” taking place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Eastern Canada. The government sought feedback on how to make the hunt more humane. What Davies saw was there would change his life forever — harp seals being clubbed to death and sometimes skinned alive — and right then he knew that he had to take drastic action to stop it.
From that pivotal moment, a campaign blossomed into a global animal welfare movement. A movement that continues today in that same pioneering spirit of seeing possibilities for a better future for humans through conserving animals and nature. Of seeing something that may at first appear small, and then bringing it into focus, and connecting it to a larger whole — in our case, rescuing species and preserving biodiversity in communities on the ground across the globe, as well as protecting all species (including ourselves) from the ongoing threat of climate change.
Today, the seal hunt in Canada is a shadow of what it was decades ago. But this change did not come without long years of tireless and tenacious work. In the process, Davies founded the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 1969 and we grew to serve animals and people all over the world. By 1983, we had spearheaded a European ban on the pelts of whitecoat harp and blueback hooded seal pups, and Canada banned the killing of whitecoats in 1987. These were significant decisions as they resulted in fewer seals being killed for their skins.
However, in 1996, the Canadian government re-invigorated the seal hunt, and IFAW once again leapt into action, this time focusing our efforts on European bans that would protect seals of all ages (not just newborns). IFAW brought a new generation of politicians, media, and activism to the ice to show the world yet again that the seal hunt was inhumane, unnecessary, and impossible to regulate.
In 2009, the European Union (EU) banned in the import and sale of products from all seals, with an exemption for those hunted by Inuit and indigenous peoples. When Canada and Norway challenged this ban at the World Trade Organization (WTO), IFAW was there to ensure the EU had the evidence and support it needed to defend the ban. The WTO’s ruling in 2013 upholding the EU’s ban was significant in that it was the first dispute settlement made on the basis of animal welfare. The WTO found that the EU could ban the trade of seal products on the basis of public moral concerns surrounding the cruelty to animals.
Since this work on seal trade bans began, the number of seals killed in the commercial seal hunt has decreased by a staggering 90% and the number of sealers active in the industry has dropped from over 5,000 to just a few hundred. A significant decline and perhaps even more importantly, a significant shift.
Today there are 36 international trade bans on seal products, including bans in Armenia, Switzerland, the 27 Member States of the European Union, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Croatia, Mexico, and the United States.
Sadly, despite these successes in Europe, the Canadian hunt still exists today. The commercial seal hunt is on a declining trend, and IFAW continues to press the government of Canada to stop support for this dying industry, and instead focus on alternatives that make our planet a better place. Just as the Canadian government abandoned commercial whaling in 1972 when there was no longer a need for it, Canada must embrace an ethic of stewardship and abandon the commercial seal hunt as well.
In youth activists of today, I see the same pioneering spirit with which IFAW was founded — a deep caring for the natural world. An inherent sense of proactive stewardship coupled with a daring to make shifts in a world often entrenched in the past. Daring to imagine and to ultimately create a better future. Canada needs to stop the hunt in order to lead by example in its relationship with nature – and do it for them.
As biodiversity continues to shrink around the globe, we know that fighting for animals takes patience, perseverance, persistence, and passion. IFAW’s fight to end the non-indigenous commercial seal hunt in Canada encompasses all of these ideals, but it is now time for it to end once and for all.
We have so much work to do together to stem the tide of extinctions. Without a global ethical framework for our interactions with the natural world, we cannot take on the challenges we face going forward. IFAW continues to advocate for that ethical imperative to ensure the wellbeing and conservation of the world’s rich wildlife species. Does one individual matter to the broader population of a species? To the planet as a whole? It does indeed, as increasingly the science tells us that human life on the planet is directly tied to how well we preserve biodiversity.
We are shifting away from the perception of humanity vs. nature and instead towards the reality that humanity is nature. And we are committed to showing the public that animals are a part of us, and every time we protect, rescue, rehabilitate, or re-wild a species — we, and the planet, are better off for it. As true today as it was over 50 years ago on the icy shores of Eastern Canada, our history continues to be one of impact — the impact of saving lives.
Azzedine Downes is the President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
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