Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals

In response to protests from animal-rights advocates and conservationists, the Canadian government announced that it would ban the hunting of baby harp seals up to about one month old. Seal hunting remains legal in some parts of the world, including Canada.

Summary of Event

In the late 1960’s pictures of Canadian and Norwegian seal hunters clubbing helpless seal pups for their valuable white pelts were widely publicized in newspapers, magazines, and filmed documentaries throughout the world. The pictures showed female seals watching their babies—who looked especially appealing because of their big eyes, and their white pelts—being clubbed and skinned. The seal cubs were often skinned while still alive, and the ice floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence were left littered with their mutilated gray corpses, along with the corpses of many seal mothers who had died while trying to shield them. Baby seals
Seals, baby
Animal rights
[kw]Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals (Oct. 15, 1969)
[kw]Ban on Hunting Baby Seals, Canada Announces (Oct. 15, 1969)
[kw]Baby Seals, Canada Announces Ban on Hunting (Oct. 15, 1969)
Baby seals
Seals, baby
Animal rights
[g]North America;Oct. 15, 1969: Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals[10490]
[g]Canada;Oct. 15, 1969: Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals[10490]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 15, 1969: Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals[10490]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 15, 1969: Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals[10490]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 15, 1969: Canada Announces Ban on Hunting Baby Seals[10490]
Watson, Paul
Trudeau, Pierre
Davis, Jack
Bardot, Brigitte

Animal rights activists such as Paul Watson deliberately staged confrontations with the seal hunters, sailors, and Canadian law enforcement officers, often at the risk of their own lives, in order to attract media attention to these annual slaughters. The protests were financed by animal rights and conservation groups such as the Greenpeace Foundation and the Fund for Animals. Once the public became aware of the slaughters in this remote area, increasing pressure was brought to bear on the Canadian government to stop it.

Conservationists warned that the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) population in the Western Atlantic was headed for extinction because of human depredation. There were some who would have welcomed the total extinction of the seal herds because seals compete with deep-sea fishermen. The Canadian government claimed that it was necessary to thin the seal herds through the slaughter of baby seals because the seals ate cod and carried a worm that infected the cod they did not eat. The conservationists explicitly contradicted these contentions, claiming that the seals ate only capelin, a noncommercial fish, and that there was no evidence that seals carry such infectious worms.

In March, 1968, fishermen from Newfoundland and Quebec slaughtered about ninety thousand newly born harp seals on the St. Lawrence ice floes. The protests, which began in North America, eventually spread throughout the world. Public sentiment was particularly aroused by the fact that the slaughter was done solely to provide luxury garments for the wealthy. The fishermen who did the actual killing were paid only approximately one dollar per skin; the bulk of the profits went to Karl Karlsen Karlsen, Karl , owner of the Karlsen Shipping Company of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Christian Reba Reba, Christian , owner of the G. C. Reba Company of Bergen, Norway, who sold the pelts for about $400 apiece.

On October 15, 1968, the Canadian minister of fisheries and forestry, Jack Davis, announced that as of March, 1970, hunters would only be allowed to kill beaters—young seals weighing up to eighty pounds that have lost the white coats that made the infant seals so valuable to the fur trade—and to kill only with rifles, not with clubs. The pups, which typically weigh about fifteen pounds, would be protected during the first month of their lives, after which their white coats are replaced with shorter, coarser, and darker hair. At that point they are called beaters because they are old enough to swim and are able to “beat” their way north to Arctic waters.

Also on October 15, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the Canadian government announced that Canada was negotiating with Norway for an agreement to ban all hunting of baby seals along the northwest Atlantic coast. Norway was the only other country that was actively hunting seals in that region.

It was thought that the 1969 ban on the slaughter of white-coated harp seal pups would end the controversy. The problem, however, was far more complicated than anyone had imagined.


The banning of the slaughter of baby seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was a symbolic victory for animal-rights activists all over the world. It proved that emotional, aesthetic, and humanitarian values could prevail over commercial interests if courageous individuals were willing to devote their time, money, and energy to the cause. Baby seals were a virtually ideal cause; they are adorable and their slaughter was not important to human welfare.

One interesting aspect of the baby seal controversy was the involvement of women. The activism of the glamorous French film star Brigitte Bardot was especially effective in drawing attention to the connection between fashion, glamour, and the bloody business of slaughtering helpless wild animals. The fur industry suffered financial losses because it became unfashionable for women to wear coats made from the skins of wild animals, especially the white fur of baby seals. Some animal-rights activists staged highly emotional confrontations with women dressed in expensive fur coats, even going so far as to spray them with blood to symbolize the source of their luxury garments.

The fur industry continued to be affected by the stigma attached to their products, and retailers began to advertise that many of their garments were not made from wild animals but from minks and other animals raised in captivity. The cruelty associated with fur coats persisted in the public mind, but the idea that animals raised for their fur would not otherwise have existed seemed more acceptable than the trapping and slaughter of animals in the wild. There were also big increases in the development, sale, advertising, and fashionability of artificial furs as a result of the adverse publicity about baby seal slaughter. Many women stopped wearing fur altogether, and it seemed that fur coats and other apparel made from furs would eventually go out of fashion.

The conflict focused the world’s attention on the larger problem that human beings were threatening the existence of many other living species. The baby seal conflict caused people to think about the question of whether humans had a right to treat other life forms as nuisances or commodities or whether there was some higher “law” that required humans to respect all life.

The Canadian and Norwegian governments had balked at protecting baby harp seals because of the pressures of commercial interests. These commercial interests were concerned not only about the profits to be made from baby seal fur but about their enormous stake in the fishing industry. Fish are the major part of a harp seal’s diet. It was claimed that seals were interfering with commercial fishing in the North Atlantic.

On March 23, 1987, the Canadian government partially reversed its position on seal hunting. The fisheries minister, Thomas Siddon Siddon, Thomas , announced that large-scale seal hunting would be permitted from ships off the east coast but that this would be restricted to older seals and would not include the white-furred pups. Animal-welfare groups reacted immediately. Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Sea Shepherd Conservation Society , announced that the beaters the hunters would kill were still not much more than babies. Watson claimed that no adult seals would be killed because there was no international market for adult seal pelts. The European Economic Community European Economic Community , Canada’s biggest trading partner after the United States, threatened to boycott Canadian fish products unless seal hunting was stopped.

The Canadian government bowed to moral and economic pressure and in December announced that it was banning most seal killing. The ban applied to both young and mature harp seals, blueback hooded seals, and gray seals. Other species of seals were not protected under the ban because they were not widely hunted. Inuit peoples living off the land were exempted from the ban because seal meat was essential to their survival.

The tremendous publicity generated over the slaughter of Canadian seals and the final outcome proved the effectiveness of international environmental activism through such tactics as consumer boycotts. It also proved that felt values—compassion and morality, for example—could prevail over commercial interests. The Canadian baby-seal controversy was important because it involved people all over the world from all walks of life and because it brought to public consciousness the moral aspect of environmentalism.

The white baby seal became a unifying protest symbol; it appeared on posters, banners, T-shirts, coffee mugs, letterheads, and bumper stickers. One environmental activist used the following words to express what the baby seal symbolized: “Every living thing has a right to exist. Once it is gone we cannot—for all our knowledge—recreate it.” Baby seals
Seals, baby
Animal rights

Further Reading

  • Bonner, W. Nigel. Seals and Man: A Study of Interactions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982. An anecdotal, not overly technical discussion of the exploitation of seals written by a leading British authority who warns of the dangers of exterminating entire seal populations through greed and mismanagement. Contains many photographs, drawings, and tables, as well as bibliographies and an index.
  • Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951. A fascinating and often poetic description of the world’s oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. The author, an early conservationist who published her landmark work Silent Spring in 1962, emphasizes the beauty, bounty, and fragility of the ecosystem.
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Seals and Sealing in Canada. A good resource from the Canadian government addressing seals as well as seal hunting in the Canadian north. Includes many links.
  • Gentry, Roger L. “Seals and Their Kin.” National Geographic 171 (April, 1987): 474-501. This thoroughly illustrated article contains a full description of the world’s pinnipeds (walruses, so-called true seals, and eared seals) with special emphasis on the problems humans cause for these animals.
  • Gentry, Roger L., and Gerald L. Kooyman, eds. Fur Seals: Maternal Strategies on Land and at Sea. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. A collection of articles by experts who focus mainly on the parental behavior of seals throughout the world. Contains illustrations and maps, as well as a useful bibliography.
  • Web site for an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization devoted to ending seal hunting. Contains many photographs, links, and other resources.
  • Schweitzer, Albert. Reverence for Life. 1969. Reprint. New York: Irvington, 1979. The author, a physician, clergyman, missionary, musician, theologian, author, and winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, helped inspire millions of people to devote their energies to preserving all life forms on the planet. This book focuses on Schweitzer’s philosophical and religious outlook.
  • Sea Shepard Conservation Society. Seal Campaign. The Web site for the major protest and rescue group, founded by Paul Watson in 1977. The site includes seal hunt facts, a history of the organization’s fight to save the seals, legislative links, and more.
  • Watson, Paul. Seal Wars: Twenty-five Years on the Front Lines with the Harp Seals. Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2003. Watson’s history recounts twenty-five-plus years of activism against seal hunting. Foreword by Martin Sheen.

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