In 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) began to mobilize public opinion against the annual hunt of baby harp seals off Canada's east coast. The I FAW was joined by other animal welfare groups, including Greenpeace. Greenpeace, the IFAW, and other organizations protested against what they perceived as the savage, uncontrolled slaughter of helpless baby harp seals for their white pelts. These organizations mailed countless appeals for funds, using photographs of Newfoundland and Labrador fishermen clubbing baby seals images that could not fail to horrify a North American and European public unexposed to the processes that bring meat to its own tables. The protesters claimed that the killing provided nothing more than luxury furs for the vain and wealthy, and extra money for a few east coast fishermen.
In 1983, in response to immense public support for ending the seal harvest and intense public pressure on European parliamentarians, the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community (EEC) approved a directive banning the importation of skins of harp and hooded seal pups for two years. By this time, public opinion against sealing was so strong that it deterred people in many nations from buying and wearing any seal garment.
The effects of the EEC ban were dramatic and swift. The cash value of all seal pelts fell so low that the hunting costs far exceeded the return. While the protesters watched the collapse of Canada's east coast whitecoat sealing industry with satisfaction, Inuit in Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, who do not hunt whitecoats, suffered from the overall collapse of the markets for seal pelts. In the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) and northern Québec, the number of seal pelts sold declined from 44 268 in 19X0 19X 1 to 7699 in 1983 19X4. The value of seal pelts sold declined from $952 590 to $76 681 in the same period. The Government of the Northwest Territories estimated that 18 of 20 Inuit villages in the N.W.T. lost 60 per cent of total annual community income because of the EEC ban a loss that affected 1500 Inuit hunters and their families. For some communities in the N.W.T., the loss was even more devastating. In Resolute, for example, income from sealing dropped from $54 000 in 1982 to $1000 in 1983.
For Canadian Inuit, these statistics point to a future of under-employment and unemployment, further constricted economic opportunities, increasing dependence on social assistance, and the demise of villages and cultures. In many northern communities, the loss of sealing markets has exacerbated problems of alcohol abuse and illness, a suicide rate that has risen in some areas to 16 times the national average, and other signs of social breakdown, loss of self-respect, and loss of cultural identity.
Efforts to salvage the market for seal pelts varied from country to country. In 1982, Greenland's Home Rule Government helped Greenlandic sealers to organize a caravan that travelled through Europe holding public meetings and discussions with anti-sealing activists. Among its members were a hunter with his sealing equipment and his wife with her processing and craft-making equipment. The caravan carried displays of seal pelts and products. The premier and two members of parliament travelled with the caravan to answer political questions. Other members of the Greenland government were given sealskin clothing to wear on trips abroad.
Favourable press coverage of the caravan caused some of the European protest groups to revise their positions on sealing. They acknowledged its importance to Greenlanders and favoured the exemption of Greenlandic seal products from the EEC ban. Greenland's external affairs ministry helped more than 50 foreign journalists to travel in Greenland, where they met seal hunters and observed the economic and cultural importance of sealing in Greenland communities. Some nations have begun to buy Greenlandic seal pelts again; sales have improved, but prices remain very low.
The involvement of the Canadian government is a different story. When protests against sealing began to build in the late 1960s, the Canadian government was slow to respond to the anti-harvest campaign's shift in focus from control of the hunt to animal rights and failed to recognize the need to actively defend the industry. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), having responsibility for marine mammals, responded only to concerns about the conservation and management of seal populations.
In the 1970s, as the protest shifted to the humaneness of the hunt, DFO began to provide carefully documented counter-arguments. Veterinarians and animal pathologists concluded that the method used to kill the seals was as humane as any that could be devised and that death came swiftly. Biologists struggled to respond to the protest's exploitation of the "human" qualities of the seals. But arguments based on fact were largely ineffectual against the campaign's steady barrage of images that inspired an emotional and sympathetic response from the public. When the campaign moved on to the morality of killing seals, DFO and other government departments were unable to respond to the moral arguments.
DFO officials who were pushing the government to support the seal hunt were blocked by the reluctance of the Department of External Affairs to get involved in the issue and its refusal to allow any other department to play an international role. Because of its responsibility for foreign trade, External's primary concern was Canada's reputation among its European trading partners, not the $12 million the sealing industry contributed annually to Canada's economy. This department did virtually nothing, however, to counteract the characterization of Canadian sealers and, by extension, all Canadians as heartless and bloodthirsty barbarians. In 1984, for example, at the request of External's own international posts, which were receiving many requests for information about the seal hunt, DFO published a brochure entitled "The Atlantic Seal Hunt: A Canadian Perspective." External's officials in Canada withheld the brochure from its foreign posts because these officials were reluctant to raise the profile of the issue.
Canadian sealers themselves were slow to organize a defence against the protest. By the time the Canadian Sealers Association formed in 1982, the battle to save markets for seal pelts was lost. The organization was too late to explain effectively to an already unsympathetic public the economic and cultural importance of the seal hunt. Frustrated sealers did further damage to their public image by responding angrily to the protesters in their midst.
In 1984, the Government of Canada established the Royal Commission on Seals and the Sealing Industry in Canada. The mandate of this international commission was "to investigate ... all aspects of seal resource management and sealing in Canada." The Commission was to make its first report before the EEC voted in 1985 to extend the ban on whitecoat seal pelts, but failed to do so. The report is expected to be released sometime this summer.