The Canadian seal hunt is the most closely watched and restricted animal hunt on the planet. Seals off Canada's east coast have been culled for hundred's of years for food, clothing and seal oil.
Historical evidence suggests that seals were hunted as far back as 3 000 years ago in areas that are now part of Canada. Centuries later, European contact and settlement in the New World not only sustained, but expanded the seal hunt.
Jacques Cartier noted that seals were hunted in the Newfoundland and Labrador region in the early 16th century. By the end of the 16th century, demand for clothing and materials comprised of seal fur in Europe ensured that the Canadian seal hunt would continue and prosper. However, the commercial seal hunt in Canada did not officially begin until the 17th century.
The Canadian seal hunt flourished throughout the 16th and 17th century but made significant economic gains in the 18th century when the Hudson's Bay Company began trading for seal skins. Within 70 years of HBC influence on the seal industry, Newfoundland's attributed 1/3 of its exports to seal. In fact, the economic gains in Newfoundland helped encourage permanent settlement in the region.
Exporting seal oil to Britain and throughout its empire was the primary reason for the commercial seal hunt in the 18th century. Seal oil was also used for a multitude of reasons ranging from cooking and fuel oils to soap production.
The annual Canadian seal hunt still exists but significant differences can be witnessed. In 1971, the Government of Canada introduced quota management to ensure seal populations do not deplete to the point of extinction.
International reactions to the Canadian seal hunt are varied. Many countries continue to import goods derived from seal. Conversely, American and European reaction to the Canadian seal hunt has been negative at best. An American ban on anything derived from seals in the 1970s was followed by a European ban on whitecoat and blueback seal harvests. Seal oil is still sold in the European Union.
In 1987, the Government of Canada reacted to the European ban by issuing a Canadian ban on the commercial harvesting of whitecoats and bluebacks. Each ensuing year resulted in government quotas designed to control hunting and maintain stable seal populations off the Canadian coast.
Current harp seal populations are estimated at over 5.5 million - three times higher than the harp seal population of the 1970s.