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Seal Hunting

Volume 412: debated on Friday 11 April 2003

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11 am

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise a very important issue, which has been somewhat forgotten in recent years. That is not for want of trying by people such as Brigitte Bardot to bring it to other people's attention. I emailed her office to tell her that this debate would be taking place, but I am not sure whether she will be joining us. It was she who, many years ago, first brought this issue to the attention of the general public. She went out to Canada and posed with some seals to demonstrate in graphic detail exactly what goes on.

There are some who would say, "For goodness' sake, why waste Parliament's time discussing animal welfare matters?" However, like many colleagues of all parties, I feel strongly about animal welfare issues. We feel that a civilisation is judged in certain respects by how it treats animals. None of us can get inside an animal to understand it. Are animals less intelligent than women and men? Are they more intelligent? None of us knows. But Parliament should spend at least some of its time discussing animal welfare issues.

I will certainly not use the debate as an opportunity to have a go at the Government. I am using the procedure in the hope that the Minister can send some sort of message to our Canadian friends. I pay tribute to an organisation called Respect for Animals. It is not perhaps widely known. It is run by four individuals and depends on the general public to sustain it financially. It runs campaigns sensibly and constructively and is entirely responsible for bringing this issue to the attention of myself and other hon. Members. As a result, an early-day motion has been tabled on our concerns about the slaughter of seals.

Together with two other Members I had a meeting on 11 September with the Canadian high commissioner. Canada is one of our greatest allies. Our meeting was conducted in a warm atmosphere. The high commissioner brought with him a number of his colleagues and officials who had great expertise in this area. It was time well spent. Although I will go into greater detail, the bottom line for me and the other 159 signatories to the early-day motion is that baby seals, lying on the ice, are not entirely delighted when a human being comes along and clubs them on the head.

I understand the historical reasons for the pursuit of seals, and I understand all the arguments that the Canadian Government advance. I said at the end of the meeting that I had not been convinced that killing the baby seals was anything other than cruel.

Early-day motion 135, tabled by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), called on the Government to take action over the seal hunt, and has been signed by about 160 Members of all parties. The hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and I saw the Canadian high commissioner, His Excellency Mel Cappe, to raise the concerns detailed in the early-day motion.

I do not want to be too emotional, but the Canadian Government have effectively declared war on seals. Last winter they announced that they would allow nearly 1 million harp and hooded seals to be killed over the next three years. That is a huge number. In 2003, according to figures from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, some 289,512 harp seals, 151 hooded seals and 1,870 seals of four other species were killed; those are horrifying statistics. I hope that hon. Members will accept that they do not include the many seals that are shot in the water and die later but are never retrieved.

I am delighted that this debate is being held today, as the 2003–04 seal hunt officially opens in 11 days' time on 15 November, and lasts for six months. However, most of the seals will be killed in March next year, so there is time to take action. I shall later describe precisely what happens to the seals, as it is right that hon. Members should know. They are usually clubbed to death, and the vast majority are killed when they are less than three months old.

An independent veterinary survey established in 2001 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare included a number of eminent vets: Joanne Fielder, John Gripper and Ian Robinson from the United Kingdom, Rosemary Burden from the United States of America, Alan Longair from Canada, and Debbie Ruehlmann, a neurologist specialist from the United States. They showed that 42 per cent. of the seals observed were skinned while they were still alive and conscious. That is unbelievable in this day and age.

Stephen Harris, professor of environmental science at the university of Bristol, witnessed the hunt in 2002 and described in an excellent article—I am prepared to believe him, because obviously it suits me to do so—the complete indifference to cruelty of some of the sealers. He found that the hunt suffered from a lack of monitoring. The Canadian high commissioner reassured my parliamentary colleagues and me that monitoring took place, but Stephen Harris believes that there was a lack of monitoring, unacceptable cruelty and definitely the potential for over-exploitation.

Most of us, including the general public, think that the clubbing of baby seals no longer goes on, but it does. A million have been killed over three years, and it is an important issue—I shall not be sidetracked by hunting with hounds—as the level of killing is almost twice as bad as it was during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Brigitte Bardot first brought it to the attention of the world.

As a result of public pressure and political will, the European Union banned the import of products from whitecoats, which are harp seals up to their first moult and approximately 10 days old, and from bluebacks, which are hooded seals up to their first moult and approximately 18 months old. That was wonderful, and all animal welfare groups welcomed it. However, although it stopped or at least severely curtailed the hunt for a few years, it has since continued. Those products are now exported to countries in the EU.

The Canadian Government have worked hard to find a way round the ban, and even subsidise the hunt. Thanks to a marketing effort, the skins from slightly older seals—in the case of harp seals, they are literally a few days older—are now being imported into the EU. That circumvents Council directive 83/129/EEC of 28 March 1983, which relates to the importation into member states of skins of certain seal pups and products derived therefrom, and which is aimed at stopping this cruel slaughter. The innocent seal is being used as a scapegoat by the Canadian Department for Fisheries and Oceans, which is the very Department that oversaw the collapse through over-fishing of fish populations, including cod, in Canadian waters.

The Department also created the myth that seals are to blame for the demise in fish stocks, which is just not true. Harp seals spend most of their lives in the north Atlantic, where they eat a variety of species including arctic cod, a species that itself eats cod. If anything, seals maintain cod populations. The ecosystem is much more complicated than the Department for Fisheries and Oceans suggests, and if seals were not around other species would increase in number to fill the niche.

Seals and fish have been around for tens of millions of years. It is only human over-fishing, which the Department for Fisheries and Oceans has overseen, that has caused the problem of depleting fish stocks. Seal hunting is not the answer for restoring fish stocks, as the Canadians would have us believe. The answer is effective policing of fishermen and their respective catches, and the implementation of fishing quotas in Canada's waters.

Opinion poll research commissioned by the Canadian Government showed that 71 per cent. of Canadians are not familiar with the issues surrounding the seal hunt, and a majority of 54 per cent. of Canadians oppose the seal hunt. So why does it continue?

Last year, 46,463 raw and tanned seal skins were imported into the EU directly from Canada, and they were valued at €1.545 million—my primary source for that is EUROSTAT. Furthermore, the EU imports large numbers of skins of Canadian origin from Norway. The Minister might already be aware that the animal welfare organisation, Respect for Animals, has initiated a boycott of Canadian tourism—as many of us know, Canada is a wonderful and beautiful country to visit. The organisation will continue the boycott while the hunt continues, which concerns the Canadian high commissioner, and that type of protest is likely to increase.

Perhaps the Minister could remind the Canadian Government that tourism is worth far more to Canada than the seal hunt could ever be, and that the Government's reputation is being damaged by this bloody slaughter. I urge the Minster to persuade his European counterparts to consider extending the European regulations that were brought into force in 1983 to all seal products. Considering that the EU is the main importer of seal products, the Canadian Government might become resigned to the fact that the seal hunt, even when subsidised, is not worth continuing.

Danny Penman, a journalist, went to watch the slaughter of seals this March. He said he met his first Canadian harp seal, and added:
"At first she was frightened but curiosity soon got the better of her.
Within five minutes she was padding slowly across the ice. Moments later she was trying to snuggle up to me. The next day, she was almost certainly dead.
Canadian sealers landed on her ice sheet shortly after dawn. They then proceeded to batter, kill and skin every living thing. Within half an hour the ice and snow was drenched with blood."
This is not an emotive opportunity to exaggerate; that actually happened. The journalist said:
"We watched in horror as a man we called 'Conan the Barbarian' slaughtered everything that came within range.
In the space of thirty seconds he clubbed five baby seals. The first four were hit over the head with his hakaapik. The fifth was stroked on the head before being bolted with the club. He then flipped the seal over on her back and began to slice open her throat and stomach.
She then began to scream"—
so would we if we were treated like that—
"and wriggle furiously as Conan peeled off her skin. Within thirty seconds the baby seal's carcass was cooling on the ice, eyes staring blankly at the sky. Her skin was dragged across the ice and dumped on a pile of steaming pelts. Conan was a few dollars richer."
Later, the mother of that seal and others came on to the ice to look for it.

That cannot be allowed to continue, and I hope that the Minister agrees.

11.16 am

Like many of us, I am recovering my voice after the flu; I hope that it holds out for this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate on Canadian seal hunting. I know how many hon. Members have a view on the subject; it has been a matter of public interest for some time. I welcome this opportunity to give the Government's view on the issue.

As the hon. Gentleman said, seals are bright, inquisitive, sensitive creatures. The slightly amusing but sad story in today's newspapers about Hoover the talking seal demonstrates that. However, Canada and Britain have close links, including links of family, and a similarity in attitude—Canada is a liberal country with values similar to ours. In many ways, although we talk about our special relationship with the United States, our closest relationship in north America is really with Canada. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a warm relationship.

When I was young, the Daily Mirror ran a series of articles showing pictures of seal clubbing. I can remember a picture on the front page of a seal clubber hitting a white seal cub. For many years after that, every time I heard the word "Canada", I recollected that image. I now know a lot more; I know that Canada is a beautiful country, that its people are wonderful, and that its attitude on most things is similar to ours. However, that association between Canada and seal clubbing is not something that does the reputation of Canadians any good at all. For a period, it certainly did not do so in my eyes—nor, I suspect, in the eyes of many others. The way in which seal clubbing and seal hunting are carried out does Canada's reputation a great deal of damage.

We closely follow developments in the Canadian seal hunt. It focuses on two main species—the harp seal and the hooded seal. Neither of them is listed in the appendices to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—CITES. Their current populations are considered to be relatively healthy, so they do not meet the relevant listing criteria. Harp seals are the most populous of the seal species on the Atlantic coast, and are the major species hunted for commercial purposes.

The Canadian seal hunt has been regulated by means of quotas for some time. Earlier this year, the Canadian Government announced a new seal management plan for 2003–05. Under that plan, the total allowable catch—TAC—for hooded seals is 10,000 a year: for harp seals, the figure has been set at 975,000 for the 2003–05 seasons, with a maximum annual TAC of 350,000. That TAC will be instrumental in meeting the Canadian Government's plan to reduce the current population of harp seals from 5.5 million to 4.7 million by 2006.

The Canadian Government maintain that their seal-hunting practices are not a danger to the sustainability of the seal population, but some authorities consider the quotas for 2003–05 to be at the limit of what may be sustainable. The Canadians have also expressed concern that the current seal population is having a negative impact on fish stocks, and especially cod stocks. However, the relationship between predator and prey may not be quite as simple as is imagined. For example, seals feed mainly on squid, which in turn eat juvenile cod, so a major reduction in seal numbers might, perversely, lead to an increase in squid and a decline in cod stocks. Seals are also a major source of prey for killer whales and polar bears, and any major decline in the seal populations is likely to hurt their major predators.

We do not accept the need for any seal cull, but if one does take place it should be sustainable and based on a precautionary principle—on an approach that takes into account the importance of the species in maintaining local biodiversity in its role as both predator and prey. Although we have made no formal representations to the Canadian Government since 1999, the Canadian authorities are aware of our views on this matter. We have expressed our concern that the seal cull should not exceed numbers that are required to maintain the sustainability of the species. We have also asked that the Canadians consider a total ban on the hunting of seals for commercial purposes. In this context, we welcome the Canadian Government's prohibition of the harvest of whitecoat and blueback seals. A whitecoat is a harp seal up to two and a half weeks old, and a blueback is a hooded seal up to about 15 to 18 months of age. The Canadian Government continue to enforce that prohibition.

The importation of the skins of harp and hooded seal pups has been prohibited in this country and throughout the European Union for 20 years. However, imports of adult skins are not prohibited. The trade in the skins of harp and hooded pup seals was prohibited on the ground that it was felt that the level of trade at that time was unsustainable. The European Commission is keeping the current status of adult populations of those seals under review, but there are insufficient grounds to intervene on the basis of sustainability at present.

I turn to the methods that are used to kill the seals, and clubbing in particular. The Canadians say that not the majority, but only about 3 per cent., of seals are killed in that way. It is an especially disgusting way of killing seals. The Canadian Government are aware of the concerns about it. They have regulations to ensure that seals are killed in a safe and humane manner. Some say that it is both safe and humane to club a seal. I do not accept that. One of the issues considered by the Canadian royal commission on seals and sealing was how far the killing of seals was carried out in a safe and humane manner. It claimed that the methods used were designed to kill the animal quickly. I suppose that clubbing a seal over the head does kill it fairly quickly, but that does not make it particularly humane or safe, certainly not for the seal. The commission claimed that the methods used were designed to protect the animal from undue cruelty—we do not accept that clubbing is acceptable. It claimed also that the methods used in hunting seals were no less humane than those used in hunting other wild animals.

The Canadians say that most seals are now shot on the ice with high-powered rifles by sealers operating from the bow of small boats. We have heard evidence suggesting that that might not be the case. However, I do not have evidence that would lead to a firm conclusion either way. Certainly, there is a great deal of concern about clubbing, and I hope that the Canadian Government will take the view that it needs to be prohibited.

There is conflicting veterinary opinion on the cruelty of seal hunts. A recent survey showed that many seals were skinned while still conscious—a disgusting practice. However, a recent Canadian Veterinary Medical Association report concluded that 98 per cent. of seals were killed in what it described as a humane manner. Even if 2 per cent. are killed cruelly, that still represents thousands of seals. I hope that the Canadian Government will work to ensure that if seal hunts are carried out, 100 per cent. of seals are killed in a way that does not involve clubbing or inhumane and improper treatment.

The Government will continue to work to raise animal welfare standards internationally through continuing engagement and dialogue with our EU and other trading partners. I assure the hon. Member for Southend, West that we are maintaining an active interest in the Canadian seal hunt. We would prefer that there were no commercial hunting at all, and we have told the Canadian Government that. However, it is important to note that the seal-hunting programme does not contravene any international agreement and that it is ultimately for the Canadian authorities to regulate the practice. As long as the hunting of seals is permitted, we hope that the killing methods will be monitored effectively and that the clubbing of seals will be stopped. We hope that the Canadian Government will monitor the operation of their regulations, and ensure that they are implemented in practice and do not just lie on the statute book. The Canadian Government do monitor and I hope that they will ensure that that monitoring is done as effectively as possible.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the EU and whether we should have a complete ban on the import of all seal products. We recognise those concerns and concerns about wider animal welfare issues; that is why we are pressing for animal welfare concerns to be recognised as legitimate grounds for action against goods under World Trade Organisation rules. Those rules govern our trade with other countries. The view of the WTO, which has to make a decision unanimously, is that it is not prepared to allow animal welfare issues to be a criterion for stopping trade in particular kinds of products. Some countries have said that the EU is attempting to impose its ethical views on other countries. It is our intention to convince, not to impose, and we will continue to seek to convince those other countries.

At present, WTO rules do not explicitly allow for trade restrictions on the basis of animal welfare concerns, and any proposal to restrict or ban the import of seal products from Canada or in general would have to be considered carefully to ensure that it would be justifiable and proportionate under WTO rules. Past experience with leghole traps has demonstrated that some trading partners will react strongly to EU attempts to impose trade measures on animal welfare grounds. There is no point in the EU or the UK making laws or implementing regulations that would be found to be in breach of WTO rules and would have to be repealed if successfully challenged. The UK's approach has been to seek discussion with Canada, which we hope will result in its ensuring that any hunting is done properly—and that, hopefully, all commercial seal hunting is ended.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.