Is seal hunting in Canada morally permissible?

In the present paper we will try to bring up the discussion of an ethical issue of seal hunting in Canada and its moral grounding. Using utilitarian approach we will compare the quantity of pleasure and pain generated by this process and prove that seal hunting cannot be morally permissible. For this purpose we will consider the issue through biological, economic and moral aspects, which touch upon the position of general non-profitability of seal hunting in the contemporary economic situation, and general non-humanity of its methods.

Despite fierce protests from animal rights advocates, a seal hunting season began in Canada. This year, the country’s government has issued a permit for extraction of 280 thousands of these mammals. 70% of the authorized quantity of animals will be killed in the Northern coast of Newfoundland, the remaining 30% – in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In 2008 the quota of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans was 275 thousand seals. Quotas for the commercial production of seals in Canada in 2009 increased by nearly 2% comparing with the previous year and are the largest in the world. Over the past four years, Canada permitted the commercial take of more than a million animals (McBrewster et al. 32-43).

Experts estimate that 335 thousand seals were killed in 2006, the cost of production amounted to nearly $25 million. However, only 325 thousand seals could be theoretically allowed to kill. Sealskin has grown in price, which produces a profit to poor coastal areas. In 1980s the international protests against the killing of seal pups affected the situation on the market of fur; hunting was suspended (Keskitalo 187-205). Hunting the animals during the period, when their fur is white-colored, is abolished. Seals can be killed only when their mother stops feeding the cubs, and in a few weeks after birth their fur turns gray.

Advocates of animals and environment, on the one hand, and authorities – on the other hand, have different opinions concerning fundamental issues, particularly, if seal population is decreasing due to hunting, and whether seal hunting can be actually conducted in accordance with the Law on the Protection of Animals. Ministry of Fisheries believes that the size of the population, amounting to 5 million, has tripled in the period from 1970-ies. The long-term plan showed that the number cannot be less than 70% of the number to date. Canadian government believes that hunting may not lead to a reduction of seal population McBrewster et al. 35-40).

Organization for the Protection of Animals in the United States, Canada and many European countries are protesting against the seal hunt on the east coast of Canada. The German Society for Animal Welfare also calls to boycott Canadian products, connected with seal hunting.

However, the members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Greenpeace refused to take part in this, giving preference to other measures.

The representative of Germany in the IFAW Uli Schnappauf states that boycott is probably not the right strategy. IFAW is focused mainly on how to stop the import of seal fur and other products to Europe. Myra Dunlop, the head of the campaign to protect seals, organized by Greenpeace, says that the better measure is to make efforts to affect the government and those, who take part in the decision making process (Revkin A2).

By present moment the European Parliament passed a bill, abolishing the import of seal production to the EU countries. However, it should be noted here, that parliaments and governments of all EU members must give their approval in order to make the law come into effect. In the U.S. the ban on imports of such products from Canada has been acting since 1972; and recently Russia has also joined the list of countries-opponents of such a hunt (Revkin A2).

Thus, the main problem is to finally define if seal hunting could be morally permissive or not. In ethics, utilitarianism is the doctrine concerning the correctness or incorrectness of an act, which should be determined on the basis of its consequences. Hedonistic utilitarianism states that the action is right or wrong in dependence on whether it maximizes the positive balance of pleasure over pain in the Universe (Bentham 112).

However, utilitarians disagree on the question whether each individual action should be evaluated on the basis of its consequences or only the general rules of behaviour should be evaluated in this way, while individual behavior should be judged only in terms of its consistency with those rules.

According to the theory of utilitarianism, the moral value of behaviour or an action is determined by its usefulness. According to the classical formulation of Bentham, something is moral, if it brings the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. However, the main difficulties in the theory of utilitarianism concern the definition of “usefulness” and “happiness” as such. Bentham and many other philosophers considered “usefulness” to be the maximum superiority of pleasure over pain (Bentham 234). Some philosophers, such as the Australian Peter Singer, determine “happiness” as the most complete satisfaction of preferences and desires of a man, even if it is not associated with the maximization of pleasure (Singer 24-32).

Applying utilitarian approach to the case of seal hunting, first it is important to mark that every living creature has a claim to a certain amount of welfare and living conditions. Therefore, in general terms, the natural rights of animals can be defined as goodness, without which they cannot exist as independent beings. These rights belong to the living beings from their birth, so they are natural, inherent and inalienable.

A common argument, by which animals are often deprived of the right to moral attitude, is the assertion that almost all animals have no mind, intelligence or conscience, and consequently, the ability to be the subject of morality. Many philosophers, calling this traditional argument a Stoic-Christian one, challenge its validity. The presence or absence of mind cannot be the ground for refusing animals in the moral attitude towards them. Claiming a moral right based on the presence of mind, we deprive of this right not only animals, but also people: mentally sick, mentally incompetent, infants, etc. (Nash 50-56).

Having a right to something usually means revealing a very strong demand of anything, which is stronger than just desire of something or some preference. For example, it could be the right to life. So, which animal does not reveal such a very strong desire to life?

Thus, the question of animal rights has two aspects: 1) if people have obligations to animals, and 2) whether animals are the subjects of morality (whether they have a moral status). While the mankind has long been responding positively to the first question, until recently the second one was given a negative answer.

It is known that if an object has a moral status, then it has moral rights. Modern environmental ethics has provided several possible evidences that animals have natural (moral) rights. For example, a well-known defender of animal rights, American eco-philosopher Tom Regan believes that the same essential physiological qualities – desire, memory, mental capacity, etc., – unite people and animals. So, both of them have the same internal (true, inherent) value, which gives them a moral status and is the basis for equal rights. Animals, as well as people, are goals by themselves, personalities, and therefore, usefulness cannot trample the rights underfoot (Regan 321-329).

According to T. Regan, respect in treating animals is not a manifestation of goodness, but a manifestation of justice, respect for rights. He believes that rare and common species should have equal rights. According to the eco-philosopher, the theory behind the animal rights movement is identical to the movement for the human rights. Nature was not created for man. Regan objects to the claim that differences in the legal status of humans and animals play a significant role, pointing to the changeability of legal norms. To see this, we need only recall that not so long ago the rights of Afro-Americans did not differ from those of livestock (Regan 321-329).

An authoritative Australian eco-philosopher Peter Singer uses utilitarian evidence of the animals’ natural (moral) rights. He believes that all beings experiencing pleasure and pain have their own interests. Defiance of these interests leads to suffering. This means that animals deserve moral status, as they have sensitivity. This, in turn, implies that they have moral rights (Singer 30-32). In other words, the prerequisites for having rights are inner interests and the ability to be subjected to damage in those cases, when these interests are offended, rejected or endangered.

A prominent English eco-theologist Andrew Linzey defends the concept of animal rights from the perspective of Christian theology: all the animals have been created by God and exist for God. And everything that has been created by God has moral status, and hence the natural (moral) right (Linzey 115-117).

Other “animals liberators” do not bother looking for the reasons of the moral rights of animals. They claim that mice and men carry the right for life, and the recognition of the right for life is simultaneously the recognition of our duty to respect this right. Moreover, it’s not the animals who need their right recognized, but we do.


The only acceptable way to manage any commercial seal hunting consists in canceling it and providing seal hunters with special compensation programs. Canadian government has successfully implemented a range of license compensating programs or license reimbursement right after closing some of fishermen’s cooperatives. These programs suppose buying fishing licenses from fishmen and giving them compensation for the lost benefits caused by closing their cooperatives. The seal hunting license buying program would provide a fair compensation for fishmen suffering in the result of durable closing of commercial seal hunting (Keskitalo 187-205).

Just the prospect of an import abolishment in the EU has resulted in the decrease of prices for the seal fur up to 15 Canadian dollars per one pelt – that is, by 86% comparing to 2006. As a result, many seal hunters stayed home. Out of the quota of 280 000 seals only 60 000 have been killed by this time. Now, when the EU has banned the seal products trade, much more of these animals will survive – now and in future (Revkin A2).

To my mind, the problem of seal hunting has three main aspects: biological, economic and moral:

– From the biological point of view, the partial removal of the population is scientifically valid;

– From the economic point of view, seal hunting is no more economically profitable and should be replaced by another type of seals usage, for example, by eco-tourism;

– From the moral and ethical point of view, seal hunting goes against the grain of any normal person, who has at least once seen a single photo or video from the place of seal hunting.

Here several most important pain aspects should be mentioned. Today the Department of Fisheries and Oceans acknowledges the shortage of regulative and control measures and also the non-humanity of seal hunting process.

The problem is that the seal hunting process is usually allowed to be conducted without presence of controllers. Thus, the DFO generally build relations with hunters on trust only: no one actually checks the real number of killed animals; and the DFO cannot guarantee whether hunters fulfill the authorized quota or overperform it and kill extra seals.

First, this contradicts with the information given by the DFO to the publicity. Earlier, the Department affirmed that seal hunting is thoroughly regulated and checked. However, there’s still no guarantee that seal hunters are honest; moreover, injured or lost seals are not reflected in quota. At the same time, according to estimations, thousands of injured seals manage to escape into the water, where they finally die from wounds.

Secondly, the DFO also acknowledges that since the department conducts only selective inspections over the number of pelts and doesn’t regularly control seal hunters during the hunting, it has practically no idea about whether the seals were killed in humane way (if there is actually any) (Revkin A2).

The stumbling block here are the methods of hunting. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence the majority of seals are killed with iron hooks. It looks cruel, but if everything is done correctly, seals die immediately. On the island of Newfoundland seals are basically killed with weapons. The IFAW and the Humane Society accuse sealers, because they do not always check if the animal is dead before removing the pelt. Often the skin is removed from animals still alive. The fishing places turn into miles-long red spots of blood. Besides, it’s known that in order to keep the valuable fur intact, seals are killed by hitting on the head (McBrewster et al. 48-52).

In this case, the number of animals suffering from pain, as well the duration and intensity generated could be only imagined, while the number of seal hunters, who could successfully receive their license compensation will reduce annually in the conditions of world social and economic protest against seal hunting.

At the same time, the Canadian government could rely on the conclusion of veterinarians, confirming that the seals are killed quickly and almost painlessly, in accordance with accepted norms. Nevertheless, there is official data of IFAW observers, who witnessed and   documentarily fixed a classic example of cruelty, associated with this hunt. The report runs that a wounded, bleeding seal escaped into the water before the hunter could get to it, while the hunter tried to pull a seal by the hind flippers. The animal is condemned to death, but its pain and actual death won’t be reflected in quota (McBrewster et al. 35-40).

Besides, the authorities claim that hunting is needed, because in recent years the number of these animals has increased significantly and seals threaten other marine inhabitants, destroying the local fish stocks. However, according to Greenpeace data, seals are endangered because of hunting: the official measurement of seal population is conducted fairly rare, the methods are not reliable, and the impact of climate change is ignored. Moreover, according to IFAW, the opposite process takes place: fish stocks get exhausted because of fishing industry, and seals have nothing to eat, which also causes the decrease of population taking place since 2003 (Revkin A2).

Granting rights to animals should make us seriously reconsider our almost universal consumer attitude towards animals: many of the actions not connected with human survival, but directed on trampling basic moral rights of animals, should be limited or even prohibited.

The environmental legislation should be revised accordingly. The rights of nature are a new concept, the humanity will need to get used to and adopt as a strategy in the widespread practice of relationship with nature (Nash 120-126).

We need to come to the concept of the rights of nature, which are far above human rights, and in case of conflict between man and nature, the priority should be given to the rights of nature. Thousand-year moral laws expressed in religious precepts, do not regulate the relations of man to nature, so people know that killing someone of their own kind is a grave sin, but then is killing nature permissible for the reason, that it exists for “usefulness” (Nash 135-139)?

It is quite an unattainable goal to refuse from anthropocentrism, to think about preserving life in general, but anthropocentrism becomes deadful. Only by subordinating its own interests to the common interests of the biosphere, the humanity could count on well-being of the planet, and therefore, its own well-being.

Protection of the rights of nature is a universal responsibility of every person and every society, crossing geographical, cultural and ideological boundaries. The rights of nature have not only legal, but also moral and ethical, spiritual, cultural, and religious content. They are a kind of a connecting link between morality and law. The most important ecological and ethical values receive dual “citizenship” in both moral and legal system (Regan 326-329).

The Canadian seal hunt is one of the injustices of our age. Hundreds of thousands of baby seals are killed year after year in order to satisfy the vanity of limited people, who cannot understand, that we do not need to wear fur to keep warm. Pythagor said that as long as people kill animals, they will kill each other. And, indeed, those who sow the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.

Leave a Reply