Skip to main content

The Strategy Behind Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Opposition to the Canadian Seal Slaughter

By April 13, 2015March 15th, 2022No Comments

Commentary by Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson

Commentary by Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson

Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson with a seal

Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson
with a seal
Photo: Sea Shepherd

Many Sea Shepherd supporters and people concerned about the killing of seals in Canada often ask why Sea Shepherd is not continuing to oppose the slaughter of harp seals in Canada. Some people have even accused Sea Shepherd of abandoning the Canadian seals.

Sea Shepherd did not abandon the seals but did discontinue its campaigns and I shall explain why.

But first I will briefly explain our history in opposing the Canadian seal slaughter.

My concerns about sealing began in 1961, when I saw a seal killed for the first time; I was ten years old. I was raised in a fishing village in the Canadian Maritimes, where seals were killed on the shores and offshore of the provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and my home province of New Brunswick.

That year the Canadian seal kill (1961) was 187,866. There was no quota. Quotas were put in place in 1971, and the quota was set that year for 245,000 seals; the number of seals killed was below quota at 230,966.

The numbers began to fall in 1972 because of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, signed into law that year. The kill in 1971 was 230,000, but for 1972 it fell to 123,832.

In response to the U.S. restrictions, the Canadian government began to provide subsidies creating a glorified welfare program for sealers.

In 1976 I organized the first Greenpeace intervention against the seal slaughter. The quota for that year was 127,000. The sealers killed 165,002. In response to killing more than the quota allowed, the Canadian Department of Fisheries raised the quota in 1977 to 170,000. The second Greenpeace anti-sealing campaign that I initiated and led brought Brigitte Bardot to the ice and was the largest effort ever made to protest the killing. The number of seals killed that year was 165,143. That campaign was the spark that ignited a growing anti-sealing movement in Europe against Canadian and Norwegian sealing.

I left Greenpeace in 1977 and again opposed the seal hunt in 1979 in partnership with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Fund for Animals. This time I brought a ship; the Sea Shepherd was the first ship to ever intervene against the slaughter. The quota for 1979 was 170,000. The kill was 160,541.

In 1982, Greenpeace came to the seal hunt with a ship for the first time. The quota was 185,000 and the kill was 166,739. In the nineties, Greenpeace changed their policy on the seal hunt and stated that it was a sustainable hunt; I was undeterred because it is not and never has been “sustainable.” The commercial seal slaughter has totally disrupted the cycle of fish, plankton and seals, and has contributed to the demise of the fisheries. Why? Because seals eat smaller fish that eat baby cod, and less seals mean more predatory fish to prey upon cod. As a result the mass killings of seals contributed, along with the greed of the industrialized fisheries, to the complete collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery in 1992 – and it has never recovered since.

It was evident that the protests were not making much of a difference. So in 1983 I brought the Sea Shepherd II to the coast of Newfoundland and blockaded the harbor for two weeks to not let the sealing ships out. I then moved to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where my crew and I escorted the sealing ships out of the sealing grounds. Of course we were arrested and the Sea Shepherd II was seized, but out of the quota set that year of 186,000 seals, the sealers killed 57,886. The European Union banned whitecoat pelts, and for the first time in the history of the Canadian seal hunt the kill fell below 100,000 seals.

The whitecoat ban had an impact and it was not until 1996 that the number of seals killed rose again above 100,000.

Between 1984 and 1995 the Canadian government quota remained at 186,000 seals every year, allowing for a total kill of 2,232,000 seals during that 12-year period. The actual kill during those 12 years was 615,000, or around a quarter of the total quota. The 1985 kill was only 19,035 of the quota of 186,000.

Why? Because there was no European Market. The seal hunt would not have survived without massive Canadian government subsidies.

Canada revived the commercial hunt in 1995 with a plan to kill six-week-old seals and to label them “adult seals.” The kill numbers began to increase once again, with 242,906 seals killed from a newly raised quota of 250,000 seals.

I returned to the seal slaughter with my ship Ocean Warrior in 1998, when the quota was set at 275,000 seals. Despite our efforts the kill went over quota to 282,624.


A Canadian harp seal Photo: Sea Shepherd

From 2003, the government continued to raise the quotas. We returned again in 2005 with the Farley Mowat when the quota was set at 319,500; many of the Sea Shepherd crew were arrested that year for disrupting the slaughter, but despite their efforts the kill was over the quota once again with 329,829.

In reviewing the campaigns it became very obvious that the only thing that made a difference was the market. Our interventions served to publicize the killing and the contradictions of the slaughter, but our on-site efforts were made increasingly difficult by stronger legislation protecting the killing – labeled the “Seal Protection Act.”

So in 2008 we decided on a different tactic. With legislation before the European Union to ban all seal products, we sent in the Farley Mowat on a campaign to sacrifice the ship to gain maximum publicity in Europe. As a Canadian, I did not skipper the vessel; in fact I stayed onshore. The command went to Captain Alex Cornelissen, a citizen of the Netherlands, and his First Officer, Peter Hammarstedt of Sweden. Most of the crew were European; we needed to make a media splash in Europe, and having a ship crewed by Europeans arrested under the “Seal Protection Act” for the crime of witnessing a seal being killed was a strategy that served to contribute to the passing of the European legislation banning seal products from Canada.

And since then Canada has not had much luck in peddling seal pelts, seal oil and seal penises to Russia and China (yes, I did mean penises, because the DFO invented a sex potion they thought they could market to the Chinese, called “seal penis tea”). The Chinese were not impressed.

With the new ban on seal pelts the kill numbers began to fall again.

2009 – 74,581 seals killed

In response, the Canadian government raised the quota to 280,000.

2010 – 67,327 seals killed

In response to this, the government raised the quota once again to 330,000.

2011 – 37,609 seals killed

In response, the Canadian government raised the quota to the ridiculous number of 400,000 and added more subsidies.

2012 – 69,175 killed
2013 – 90,318 killed
2014 – 54,806 killed

None of the kill numbers from 2009 onward have even come close to the quotas set by the Canadian government.

Between 2007 and 2012, the DFO set an annual quota of 8,200 hooded seals, for a total of 49,200. The number killed during that time period was 811, with none killed in 2011 and one killed in 2012. The grey seals quotas for the same period totaled 244,000. The actual number killed from 2007 to 2014 was 2,738, with none killed at all in 2011.

What these figures illustrate is that there is no commercial sealing industry in Canada. There is simply an illusion of an industry with the annual announcement of unrealistic kill quotas of seals for which there is no longer a market. Fisheries Minister Gail Shea of the Harper government is spending millions in tax dollars trying to sell seal products. It’s hard to sell a dying or dead industry, so the quotas are set high to give the impression that this is a viable industry and that the killing is sustainable. It would have to be sustainable to provide 400,000 corpses ready for skinning every year – but if these numbers were actually taken, the seal population would drop again.

Why are there so many harp seals compared to populations of hooded and greys? Is it because they are out of control? The answer is no. That is the way nature has shaped the North Atlantic eco-system. When Jacques Cartier first sailed to the “new” world from France back in 1534, there were some 40 million seals in the North Atlantic, now reduced to less than 20% of that number. The seals needed the fish, the fish needed the plankton that fed on seal feces and afterbirth, and the fish needed the plankton. The cod worm found in the flesh of cod passed through the body of seals as part of that natural cycle – fish to seal, seal to sea and back to fish. The Canadian DFO sees three factors: humans, seals and fish – and they disregard the fact that there are some 900+ species interdependent on each other within an eco-system that requires large numbers of seals. In fact, added to the harps, the hooded, the greys, the harbor and the ring seals, there were once walrus on the eastern coast of Canada; they were extirpated by humans by the year 1700, in the marine biological holocaust that humanity has inflicted upon the ocean.

The seals are killed by landsmen and by sealers with small boats. There are no pelagic sealing operations. Commercial sealers are not going to expend money for fuel and costs to pursue a product they simply can’t sell. The seals that are killed are sold in the domestic market in Canada and a few sealers are paid subsidies to kill seals, and over the years we have found plenty of evidence of seal pelts discarded in dump sites. Many of the sealers are like deer hunters, killing a few seals here and there.

The problem is that it is difficult to organize an effective intervention against such scattered acts of slaughter. To be effective, Sea Shepherd needs a sealing fleet to oppose, and there simply is not a Canadian sealing fleet anymore.

However the groups that are good at lobbying and have effective campaign against the marketing of seal pelts have carried on. They may not mount campaigns as dramatic as Sea Shepherd campaigns against sealing but they are effective campaigns, led by groups like IFAW, PETA, and The Humane Society of the United States amongst others.

The success of a movement lies in diversity, and over the years it has been a diversity of groups (conservation, animal welfare and animal rights) working towards a common objective – the eradication of sealing.

Every campaign teaches us new directions. Canada has imposed Draconian regulations to prevent interference on the ice with the sealers. Fine, the confrontations of the past laid the foundation for where we go tomorrow, and in my opinion it is to focus our attentions on the markets; if the markets are abolished, commercial sealing will be abolished.

As a Canadian I view it as my responsibility to remove the blood and the shame of the seal slaughter from the escutcheon of Canada, and to restore decency to a country that has been profaned by the likes of Gail Shea and the Canadian politicians who have over the years traded votes for barbarity and horrific cruelty. It is an abomination and a bloody obscenity that has no place in the 21st Century and no place within the national profile of a civilized nation.

The other factor for why Sea Shepherd will not intervene is strategic and it is because the Canadian government and the sealing industry want Sea Shepherd to intervene.


Because they need to ignite the passions of the sealers and the fishermen who view seals as a threat to the supply of fish, and they desperately need a scapegoat to deflect public attention away from the incompetence of mismanagement by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. If the people in the fishing communities get enraged and angry, the government would like that hostility to be directed at Sea Shepherd and not at themselves.

Sea Shepherd has no intention of playing their game, and no intention of undoing the results of the European ban. The key to ending the seal slaughter is the markets – and Canada has been unsuccessful in overturning the European ban and they have failed in their efforts to create new markets. There is also the advantage of having Gail Shea as the Federal Minister of Fisheries. She has a tendency to stick her foot down her throat. She is to seals what Sarah Palin is to wolves. In other words, she’s dumb, vindictive, cruel and predictable. In 2011 she announced a deal to sell seal products to China; pressure from the anti-sealing movement has stopped that deal. China does not want Canadian seal products.

Gail Shea has overseen the destruction of one of the world’s most prestigious libraries on fisheries and oceans; she has driven the fishing industry into the depths of disaster; and she has overseen the poisoning of the waters of British Columbia and the fishermen and environmentalists both despise her for it. But the one thing she has going for her is her obsession with murdering seals; it’s the only thing most fishermen like about her.

A few years ago, a protestor put a pie in Shea’s face; she histrionically called it an act of terrorism. Her response was that that action has hardened her resolve to kill seals; she has responded to being pied by setting the highest kill quotas on seals in over a century and a half, despite the fact that there is simply no market for 80% of the seals she wants killed. Aside from her lack of humanity, she’s also a lousy business person, but she does not mind because she has a public purse to dip in to satisfy her own selfish personal perversions.

I have fought the seal hunt all of my life and I will continue to do so, but after decades of opposition I can say our movement has done an awesome job in the face of government power.

Back in the late eighties – in the wake of the whitecoat ban – in a debate with former Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland, a sealer in the audience asked me, “What will you do if we return to sealing?”

I looked at him, and as the audience jeered and heckled me, I simply said, “We will crush your markets and we will toss your abominable industry into the trash bin of history where it belongs.”

Our mission is almost complete and in my lifetime I am confident of seeing the day when we will look upon seals as the valuable citizens of the sea that they are, for their ecological worth, for their aesthetic value and because they are the caretakers of the fish and the custodians of the deep.

Besides that, they have ridiculously cute pups.

Leave a Reply