The economics of ending Canada’s commercial harp seal hunt
Professor, Department of Economics, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G 2W1
Received 10 March 2009
Accepted 14 April 2009
Individual transferable quotas
The roots of the Canadian harp seal hunt can be traced to the 16th Century. But in the mid-20th century,
opposition to the commercial hunt became widespread after television images of seal pups being killed
with clubs on the pack ice off the coast of Newfoundland were broadcast around the world.
International conservation groups, animal welfare groups, animal rights groups, and foreign
governments have been calling for the Canadian government to end the commercial seal hunt on the
grounds that it is inhumane and that harvest levels are unsustainable. The Canadian government
defends the traditional practices of hunting harp seals, argues that seal pelts are an important source of
income for sealers, and insists that the killing methods are humane and that harvest levels are
sustainable. Emotions run high on both sides of the debate. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate
whether or not there is a purely economic argument for ending Canada’s commercial seal hunt. The
paper ﬁnds that the beneﬁts of ending the commercial hunt exceed the costs, but not unequivocally.
However, the paper argues there should be a higher criterion—the Pareto criterion—for ending the
commercial hunt; that is the hunt should end only if winners compensate the losers. The paper goes on
to argue that an effective way to satisfy this criterion is to introduce a system of individual transferable
quotas (ITQs) and let the market reveal the value of the commercial seal hunt. In addition to many other
advantages such as improving the safety and efﬁciency of the hunt, the ITQ market could provide a
mechanism by which those willing to pay to end the hunt could do so directly to sealers thereby
ensuring that the hunt is scaled back or ultimately ended only when it is economically efﬁcient and
& 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The commercial harp seal hunt in eastern Canada is rich in
both history and controversy. Its roots can be traced to the 16th
Century when ﬁshing vessels sailed from Europe to harvest seals
during the birthing and mating rituals on the late-winter pack ice
off the coast of Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But
in the mid-20th century, opposition to the commercial hunt
became widespread after television images of seal pups being
clubbed to death were broadcast around the world. For decades
now, international conservation groups, animal welfare groups,
animal rights groups, and foreign governments alike have been
calling for the Canadian government to end the commercial seal
hunt on the grounds that the killing methods are inhumane and
that harvest levels are unsustainable.
The Canadian government,
on the other hand, defends the traditional practices of hunting
harp seals, argues that seal pelts are an important source of
income for sealers, and insists that the killing methods are
humane and that harvest levels are sustainable .
For most involved in the debate over whether or not the
commercial seal hunt should be ended, the issue is highly
emotional. Parties on both sides of the debate expend not only
considerable energy but considerable resources to further their
cause. Opponents to the hunt make signiﬁcant donations to non-
governmental organizations that conduct information campaigns
world-wide and often send scientists and specialists to monitor
the hunt. Defenders of the hunt also expend considerable
resources conducting information campaigns, funding lobbyists
to promote the seal hunt and to establish new markets for pelts
and other products. The federal government in addition expends
considerable resources managing the resource, establishing and
enforcing regulations for the hunt and monitoring the hunters and
the individual observers who are also subject to regulations. For
anyone familiar with the theory of common-property resources
which argues that little in the way of economic surplus is likely to
be generated by the exploitation of harp seals, it may seem
surprising that the Canadian government could spend so much
ﬁghting for so little.
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For example, the United States, Belgium and the Netherlands have banned
trade in seal products; the European Union banned the trade in whitecoat harp
seals and blueback hooded seals in 1983 and is currently considering a bill that
would ban imports of all seal products; the Humane Society of the United States
has organized a boycott of all Canadian seafood products to protest the seal hunt.
Marine Policy 34 (2010) 42–53