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Sealers and Eco-Tourists Draw Battle Line in Ice : Canada has eased restrictions on seal hunting, which could jeopardize both pups and tourism.

March 15, 1992|JUDI DASH | Dash is a New Jersey-based free-lance writer and former travel editor of The Record in Hackensack, N.J

ILES DE LA MADELEINE, Canada — It is blissful here on the frozen ice floes in the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, where we have come to watch the annual March harp seal birthing.

All around us are fluffy white pups with black button eyes, happily nursing against their gray blubbery mothers, sleeping peacefully in little ice indentations, even wriggling up to nuzzle our outstretched fingers.

In the Iles de la Madeleine--also known as the Magdalen Islands--of Quebec Province, once prime seal-hunting grounds, tourists armed with cameras have largely replaced hunters with clubs. Seal-watching tours started up about five years ago, with the blessing of conservationists, who hoped that the islanders would see that live seals brought bigger profits than dead ones, and that tourism was the best hope for the future.

But both the seal watches and the pups are in jeopardy as new Canadian regulations make seal hunting not only easier but encouraged.

Blaming a supposed explosion in the seal population for drastic drops in North Atlantic cod fish stocks, federal fisheries minister John Crosbie earlier this month reduced requirements for seal hunting licenses, called for the killing of some 500,000 seals, and said the government would initiate measures to develop new seal products and markets for those products. The government says the harp seal population has surged to 3.3 million from 2 million in 1983.

Conservationists say the crisis in the $700-million-a-year northern cod industry is due not to hungry seals--who, they say, rarely eat cod--but to overfishing by Canadian and foreign vessels. Spokesmen for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) also dispute the seal population growth figures, saying that the population has remained constant.

Large-scale seal hunting virtually ended a decade ago after environmental groups focused world attention on the clubbing of baby seals on pack ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, causing the market for seal pelts in Europe and the United States to dry up. Both the United States and European Community ban importation of "whitecoat" baby sealskins.

Responding to the outcry, Canada outlawed large-scale commercial hunting of seal pups in 1987 and stopped issuing new sealing licenses--but continued to permit small-scale subsistance sealing by fishermen who already had licenses. Although the current legal annual limit is 185,000 seals, because of the lack of markets fewer than 6,000 were killed last year, mainly for their meat.

Under the revised regulations, new seal hunting licenses are being issued to licensed fisherman for the first time in five years. The new regulations, however, do not permit the resumption of large scale commercial sealing.

During the annual March birthing season, when some 600,000 pups are born on the St. Lawrence River ice floes, several tour operators bring groups for five- or six-day stays on Grindstone Island, the largest of the Magdalen Islands, about a 45-minute flight north from Halifax. (Some groups are based on Prince Edward Island, about 75 miles south of the Magdalens.)

Typically, tourists pay about $1,800 to be outfitted in thermal survival suits and insulated boots and taken by helicopters to the frozen birthing grounds. There they spend several hours with the seal colonies, petting and photographing the snowy white pups, watching them nurse and staying out of the way of protective mothers. Extra visits to the ice run about $250 apiece.

If the seal hunt comes back big-time, the seal-watching trips could end.

"Our trips bring in about $800,000 each March to the Magdalens, and I want to continue bringing tourists but I am not willing to co-exist with large-scale hunting," said Ben Bressler, who runs Natural Habitat Wildlife Adventures of Sussex, N.J., the largest U.S. seal-watching operator. The company has brought some 2,000 visitors to the Magdalens since 1988, when it began tours under the auspices of the IFAW. The fund's founder, Brian Davies, first launched the Save the Seals campaign in 1967.

Some islanders have suggested that compromise is possible, whereby tourists could go by helicopter to the furthest colonies and hunters could have access to the closest herds, which they pursue on foot, in snowmobiles and--when the ice is thick enough--in trucks.

However, asked to imagine a scenario where tourists and hunters shared the same hotels and where tourist guides also guided hunters--albeit to different sections of ice--Bressler said: "We're committed to this season, but I don't see us continuing if that would happen next year. (Then) they can't have our $800,000."

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