BOOKS: Seal Wars

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2003:

Seal Wars: 25 years on the front lines with the harp seal by Paul Watson
Firefly Books (U.S.) Inc. (P.O. Box 1338,
Ellicot Station, Buffalo, NY 14205), 2003.
248 pages,
paperback. $16.95.

About the only good news for harp seals
off eastern Canada this year is that Sea Shepherd
Conservation Society founder Paul Watson,
Brigitte Bardot, and others of their old
defenders are still on the job.
Watson’s first crusades on behalf of
animals, as he recounts in Seal Wars, was
against sport fishing, during his New Brunswick
boyhood. Soon afterward his mother enrolled him
in The Kindness Club, founded by the late Aida
Flemming, still active under Jane Tarn. Not
long after that, Watson befriended a beaver
family, then avenged them after they were
trapped for fur, by becoming an avid trapbuster.
Watson became aware of sealing, and was
appalled by it, in 1960–at almost the same time
then-New Brunswick SPCA cruelty inspector Brian
Davies became aware of it. But the Watson family
moved to Toronto, and Paul Watson, after high
school, went to sea. While Davies founded the
New Brunswick SPCA Save The Seals Fund, which
eventually went independent and grew into the
Inter-national Fund for Animal Welfare, Watson
helped to found Greenpeace, and won renown for
derring-do against Russian whalers.

Watson finally found the opportunity to defend seals in 1975.
Bardot, meanwhile, became aware of the
cruelty of the Atlantic Canadian harp seal hunt
in 1955, from a film documentary by Harry
Lillie. By the time Watson brought her to the
ice in 1977, she had been wanting to stop the
hunt for more than half her life. Derided as a
foreign meddler by Canadian public officials and
news media, she knew more about the hunt than
most of them did.
When the Canadian government suspended
the offshore part of the hunt for 10 years in
1984, Watson and Bardot were not fooled. They
knew the land-based portion of the hunt
continued, using the same methods, and
recognized that suspending the more controversial
offshore hunt would allow Canada to lull the
world into complacency. Neither one ever shut up
about the hunt. Watson in particular also warned
that when the collapsed Atlantic Canada cod stock
failed to recover from decades of overfishing,
seals would be blamed, despite a dearth of
evidence that harp seals even eat much cod.
Their dire prophecies were realized when
the offshore hunt resumed in 1996, with quotas
that have now soared to their highest levels in
more than a century.
In January 2003 the Canadian Fisheries
Resource Conservation Council recommended that
seals be extirpated entirely from the Gulf of St.
Claiming that the seal population has quadrupled
since 1970, the Canadian Depart-ment of
Fisheries and Oceans in February 2003 authorized
the massacre of 975,000 harp seals and grey seals
through 2005.
The World Wildlife Fund, while opposing
a seal “cull,” in March 2003 endorsed the idea
of a “sustainable harvest” at the quota level.
On March 28-29, IFAW videographers again
documented instances of seals being skinned
alive–as has been documented on film and video
since 1949, and was reported by observers in
written accounts for almost as long as seal hunts
have been conducted. IFAW now claims to have
recorded more than 600 live skinnings since 1998.
Canadian authorities have prosecuted only 71
cases, winning 47 convictions.
Ottawa meanwhile eased the permit
requirements for fishers who wish to kill
“nuisance” seals, helped the tribally governed
Nunavut region to double sales of seal pelts
since 2001, and added the Newfoundland and
Labrador cod populations to the Canadian
endangered species list–which means nothing, in
effect, because Canada has no law mandating that
anything be done to conserve endangered species
beyond listing them.
Brigitte Bardot denounced the World
Wildlife Fund position and Paul Watson
recommended a boycott of the 2010 Winter
Olympics, to be held in Vancouver and Whistler,
British Columbia, but the U.S. war in Iraq
completely upstaged media attention to the 2003
Atlantic Canadian seal hunt.
Finally, however, the Humane Society of
the U.S. led a coalition of eight organizations
in protesting against the seal hunt in a series
of full-page New York Times ads. Co-signers were
the Animal Protection Institute, the Bellerive
Foundation, the Born Free Foundation, IFAW,
the Fund for Animals, Respect for Animals, and
the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
The ads began appearing in mid-June, just as the
2003 hunt was ending–but better late than never.
Seal Wars, as Watson’s longtime fellow
campaigner Al “Jet” Johnson told ANMAL PEOPLE,
is a well-told story, but probably won’t help
much in the short run to revive opposition to
Canadian sealing because too few people will read
Seal Wars will, on the other hand, much
better inform the people who take the time to
read it, and includes a thorough backgrounding
on the evolution of Atlantic Canadian sealing:
50 years before the outside world became aware of
it, the hunt had already been scientifically
recognized as ecologically destructive, and was
already denounced for cruelty even by some
Some of Watson’s versions of events will
be challenged, and some already have been. The
events of which ANIMAL PEOPLE has direct
knowledge are narrated almost exactly as Watson
originally described them while they were still
underway. The sole exception is the omission of
any mention of Watson’s then-wife Lisa DiStefano
from the opening chapter, concerning the 1995
assault on Watson, actor Martin Sheen, and
other Sea Shepherd volunteers by sealers who
stormed the hotel where they were staying in the
Magdalen Islands, off Quebec. That omission
appears to result from a messy divorce.
In another passage Watson alleges that a
verbal altercation on live radio with
then-Greenpeace publicist Peter Dykstra “was a
mistakeĊ because he ended up working in the
environment department at CNN, where he would
use his influenceĊ to prevent Sea Shepherd stories
from being aired.”
Dykstra denied the whole account. Jet
Johnson affirmed, however, that he was present
with Watson during the incident.
Through archival searches ANIMAL PEOPLE
found that CNN during the past five years
broadcast only four items mentioning the Sea
Shepherds, all in 1998. By comparison,
Associated Press carried 23 items mentioning the
Sea Shepherds since 1995. Reuters and UPI each
carried 10. National Public Radio broadcast
five, while the CBC and CBS each broadcast none.
Conclusion: no evidence suggests that
Dykstra is slighting the Sea Shepherds.
The tangled relationships among sealers,
anti-sealers, and mass media are critically
important to the future of sealing–a point
Watson himself makes over and over. Lately the
government-funded publicists for sealing have
managed to spin things mostly their own way. Now
opponents of sealing must reverse the sealers’

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