Hunting for the hunters

James McLeod
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Climb aboard the activists' chopper as it searches for seals and sealers

First in a two-part series

The sun is blindingly bright early Saturday morning in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Sheryl Fink is hunting for sealers.

Fink is director of the sealing campaign for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and aboard a chartered helicopter, she's looking for seal hunters.

After leaving Deer Lake around 7 a.m., the chopper flew low over Gros Morne before turning west, out into the Gulf. The sealers don't tell the anti-sealing activists where they're going, which means Fink and her compatriots spend more time searching for hunters than anything else.

The chopper is armed with a gyroscopically stabilized omnidirectional Cineflex camera which lets the operator scan the ice floes for up to 15 kilometres in any direction.

In addition to the helicopter, the IFAW hires a twin-engine plane that can fly faster and farther, scanning for boats. They use their iPhones to text back and forth.

Fink is also in contact with Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Humane Society International, who's in another helicopter.

Right now, though, both the plane and Aldworth are on the northeast coast, so we're on our own.

Armed with ice charts, Fink and her camera operator scan the ice for seals. Mostly, they just find shadows.

"They're either chunks of ice shaped like boats, or pools of water shaped like seals," Fink says.

After about an hour of searching, they get lucky.

It looks like just a red speck on the LCD display in the back seat of the helicopter, but it's a boat, weaving slowly through the ice pans.

The chopper approaches, but according to DFO regulations it has to stay at least 1,000 feet away. As the chopper circles, Fink and cameraman Stewart Cook pore over their screens. Given the 48x magnification, they can see a lot more detail than they ever could just looking out a window.

The back of the boat is red with blood. There's also a blood stain on the roof of the wheelhouse - the hunter keeps climbing up with a pair of binoculars to get a better vantage.

"He's got blood on him," Fink observes.

The hunter has his gun out. The camera misses the kill, but follows the direction he's pointing in, to a seal that isn't moving.

As the boat approaches, the hunter hops out, hits the seal with a gaff to confirm the kill, hooks it and drags it back to the vessel.

Back on the boat, he expertly skins the animal and tosses the carcass into the water.

Then he takes a smoke break.

This isn't what Fink and her crew are looking for. The kill is grisly, but it's by the book. They're hoping to document violations and inhumane activity.

"It was legal," Fink concedes. "He looks like a nice guy. Old-timer."

From above, there are no more seals anywhere within sight. The boat below steams through the ice, and after a minute or two, the helicopter moves on.

There's no more action to see here.


The IFAW spent more than $760,000 on its campaign to end Canada's commercial seal hunt in 2009, according to tax records - the most recent year available on their website.

In the same year, according to the provincial government, the seal hunt was worth $857,000.

The overwhelming majority of the money spent by the IFAW goes to the helicopter, the plane and the staff, to observe the hunt and collect the all-important footage of seals being slaughtered on sea ice.

Fink says that the video footage provides "direct evidence" of what the killing looks like on the ice.

"As you know, the government says the hunt is humane and it's well-regulated, and they've got their talking points. Filming the hunt gives us the evidence to say, 'No, that's not true.'

"In the past few years, the video evidence taken by both us and Humane Society International, I think, has played an important role in getting the European Union to ban the import and trade of seal products."

But while members of the IFAW present their video evidence as irrefutable, there are plenty of seal industry advocates lined up to question it.

Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield dismisses the anti-sealing campaign as "pure misinformation."

Pierre-Yves Daoust, a professor of anatomic pathology and wildlife pathology at the University of Prince Edward Island, says the IFAW videos lack scientific rigour and objectivity.

"It's insufficient to go by helicopter and follow some of the sealing vessels in the hope that they will break the rules or that they will have a miss, and then you can show examples of an animal that is not dead right away," Daoust says.

"Yes, in five per cent of the cases the animal did not die as quickly as it should have and there was an issue there. OK, five per cent of the animals. You can compare that with a number of slaughterhouses which can vary between zero and 10 per cent when the animals are not killed properly. You can compare it to hunting waterfowl, hunting deer, hunting antelopes in Africa."

Fink acknowledges that they do "take the (kills) that cause the most concern and put those together."

One consistent criticism of the IFAW and its ilk by seal hunt advocates is that they are only using the footage and the opposition to the hunt to raise money.

"It's one of the most enforced and regulated hunts of its kind in the world, and they're here undermining that and forwarding their own agenda which is to fill their bank accounts, to keep their high salaries, to keep their residence and their travel," says Frank Pinhorn, president of the Canadian Sealers' Association.

"That's their main goal."

Fink dismisses that idea completely, saying they also conduct campaigns on endangered tigers, elephants and Japanese whaling.

"There's this perception, I think, that seals is our bread and butter, and it's the only reason IFAW survives, and that's absolutely not the case," she says.

"It's our founding campaign, it's something we're committed to, but it's just one of a number of issues that we work on around the world."


It's late afternoon, and about 30 or 40 kilometres northeast of Fogo Island, the chopper sets down on a piece of "possibly landable ice."

The pan is five or six metres across and the helicopter never actually lands. The pilot just comes down until the skids are touching the ice, and then he keeps the rotors going at full speed while Fink and Cook and this reporter scurry out.

Three or four ice pans away, there's an adult harp seal basking - one of only a few dozen animals Fink and her crew have spotted all day.

With the animal over her shoulder in the background, Fink attaches a microphone to the lapel of her survival suit and proceeds to try to make a video.

"I'm actually quite relieved that we didn't see very much seal hunting going on today - we only saw a couple boats out, pretty small boats, much smaller than we've seen in other years," she says.

"It appears that the commercial seal hunt as we once knew it just isn't happening this year."

The helicopter hovers overhead.

Cook reminds her that there's a seal directly behind her, so she probably shouldn't say she hasn't seen very many seals.

"We've landed on an ice pan where we've found a couple of adult seals in the area, but other than that, we haven't really seen very many seals at all. We haven't seen any pups. It's a very different situation out here," she says.

"This is the way I like to see it. I like to be here on the ice with the seals, this is the way it should be. It's peaceful, it's quiet, and I feel good knowing that the seals might be safe this year."

Cook bursts out laughing.

"It's quiet? There's a f---ing helicopter going above!"

They try again, and after another couple of flubbed takes, Fink tries the direct approach.

"Please help IFAW to protect seals like the one here behind me. Visit to learn how you can help." Twitter: TelegramJames

Monday: Neither side ready to call it quits

Organizations: IFAW, Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare European Union University of Prince Edward Island Canadian Sealers

Geographic location: Deer Lake, Canada, Africa Fogo Island

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Recent comments

  • dennis davey
    October 07, 2012 - 18:51

    My comment is not about the seal slaughter, although it is inhumane , barbaric and prehistoric, and unfortunately supported by Harper. If you think this is barbaric, consider this Harper has brought back live animal transport and slaughter to the cruelest places in the world for Canadas food animals, Middle East, Asia Pacific. See what is in store for LIVE Canadian food animals, thanks toHarper, by simply accessing ''Australia live animal transport and slaughter" on the internet. Sometimes i am ashamed to be Canadian, and this is one of those times.

  • Mark
    April 29, 2012 - 12:14

    I have no respect for Canada. Harper is a warmongering, arms trading maniac, a clone of Bush only far, far worse. He uses extortion and bribes to peddle his filthy tar sands, the dirtiest oil on earth, and wants to be responsible for not only the devastation of Canada's environment but for the end of life on earth as we know it for the short term greed of his criminal cronies. Harper has used every trick to sabotage global climate talks, covertly destroys any opposition to expand his filthy tar sands to a blackened moonscape area the size of florida while poisoning wildlife and native peoples in Alberta with huge lakes of toxic sludge, engages in massive clearcutting of what's left of the boreal forest and massive pollution of air and water, not to mention his sadistic war on Canada's wildlife including his bloodbath baby seal massacres that he tries to peddle to the world with the usual Harper threats and extortion. The result of Harper's attack on the arctic seals is the destruction of Canada'ls reputation, the entire world banning trade in that monstrous cruelty..included in that ban is all Europe, the US, Russian states, even Mexico. The boycott of Canadian seafood from the world's disgust at Canada has topped a billion dollars while the unwanted cruelty furs pile up in warehouses and taxpayers are robbed for a criminal massacre. Meanwhile the Harper monster is running off to China to try to sell his seal penises and China is showing zero interest. Harper and his government thugs are criminal monsters that make Saddam Hussein look like a saint.

  • enuf is enuf
    April 22, 2012 - 10:03

    the optics of the seal hunt are just too much for the rest of the world to take; who buy their meat sanitized of the horrors of the factory farm and slaughterhouse. The pay off to the seal hunter is not worth it; while the negative press to us as a blood thirsty people grows and hurts our tourism industry and reputation abroad. this battle is finsished- let it go the way of the whale hunt.I'm fed up seeing the footage and defending it in this age.

  • George Smith
    April 22, 2012 - 08:54

    First Mack your comment is rude and disgusting. Never assume that sealers are lazy or stupid. Man you are narrow minded. I wonder what Ms Finks salary is? Maybe she can find a similar wage doing humanitarian work somewhere. And yes I agree with the people that say we should not be giving these people press opportunities. If we had stopped that years ago they would have moved on and found another "cause" where they could avail of free advertising to make their millions and keep their salaries in tact. I was in halifax airport a few years ago and a bunch of the animal welfare people were returning from Newfoundland heading back to their homes in the States. Man the lavish clothing they were wearing. All of the high tech designer brands (to help them survive outdoors) which were no doubt manufacturerd in some sweat shop in Asia by possibly kids in a factory belching out pollutants. Leather is a much more eco-friendly product any day!

  • Bridget Curran
    April 22, 2012 - 08:33

    That's pretty rich calling those campaigning to end the cruel and wasteful commercial seal hunt "vultures." Each year the Canadian government wastes millions of Canadians' tax dollars on the killing. Millions of our hard-earned tax dollars spent on an industry that brings in less than one million dollars! And now 3.7 million dollars worth of Newfoundlanders' tax dollars are being paid to a processor to stockpile pelts (and likely destroy them, if truth be told) in the vain hope mythical markets will magically appear in the next couple of years. And 17K to cover the cost of a furrier promoting seal fur at a trade show where the only country allowed to buy seal fur is Canada itself!! The true vultures are the sealers who continually put their hands out to Canadian taxpayers, demanding their money to keep the commercial sealing industry afloat, while telling the Canadian taxpayers to shut up when they object. We're supposed to foot the bill for these thugs to continue on with their bloodlust (see remarks made by sealers about how much they love the killing and it's in their blood) but we're not allowed to have an opinion on the subject. Unless we agree with the thugs, of course. The commercial seal hunt is nothing but a glorified welfare scheme. Shame on the sealers and shame on the Canadian government for gouging Canadian taxpayers to keep this cruel industry afloat.

  • Edward
    April 21, 2012 - 19:06

    Three of my NL friends and me were beaten in a bar in Edmonton for being "seal killers." The activists campaign is working. Hatred and prejudice is spreading towards our people. Please stop this nonsense before more Newfoundlanders are hurt!

  • Max E
    April 21, 2012 - 12:40

    I've said it before and I'll keep on saying it.. "Don't give those vultures ANY press exposure. They are unworthy of publicity, unless of course one of their helicopters crash, or they experience other travel mishaps They are only in it for the cash."

  • Clarke
    April 21, 2012 - 08:52

    Very good read. people need to understand that a certain percentage of the seals (like many other animals) need to be culled so the ecosystem keeps stable, because with a high population of a predator causes a huge decrease in the population of its food source. which in turn affects the number of new born cubs that well survive come breeding season.

  • Clarke
    April 21, 2012 - 08:51

    Very good read. people need to understand that a certain percentage of the seals (like many other animals) need to be culled so the ecosystem keeps stable, because with a high population of a predator causes a huge decrease in the population of its food source. which in turn affects the number of new born cubs that well survive come breeding season.

  • paul
    April 21, 2012 - 07:41

    how come a newfoundland and labrador newspaper is catering to these money vultures they care less about seals then any of us but the media is a great help to them

    • Mack
      April 21, 2012 - 17:45

      You losers are literally stealing money from hardworking taxpayers to buy pelts nobody is ever gonna sell and you think IFAW are the vultures? The money they get is given freely. Yours is because you're too stupid and lazy and learn a 21st Century skill.