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Collapse of Fishery Makes Seal Hunt More Important Than Ever

April 9, 1995

TWILLINGATE, Newfoundland (AP) _ Jack Troake stares out at the frozen sea and grouses about the ill wind crushing the ice hard against the shore, locking his 50-foot boat in port and delaying the start of the seal hunt.

Troake, 59, and his two sons need the seals badly this year. The fishing industry has all but collapsed and money is tight on this tiny island off the jagged north coast of Newfoundland.

The cod are gone. Flounder are nearly fished out. Spanish boats are hauling in what could be the last of the turbot. The only hope for survival here is a growing market for crabs. And seals _ whether Brigitte Bardot complains or not.

Sealers ought to be heading north now. The ice has dictated otherwise.

``We should be out making some money, but nature is against us,″ said Troake, whose family settled in Newfoundland 235 years ago and has been sealing since.

The animals are out there. Millions of them. The herd, by all estimates, is larger than ever. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans says there are at least 4 million. Sealers say the figure is double that.

Troake kills seals by shooting them. Others use a metal-tipped club called a hakapik to crush the skull, bringing about a quick death.

The last few years only about 50,000 seals were harvested, mainly due to a poor market. This year, buyers have told hunters they can take all the seals they get, up to the 186,000 government quota.

Troake, who hunts with his sons and three other men aboard the Lone Fisher, says that if the weather gives them a break, his team should make 3,000 to 5,000 Canadian dollars ($2,100-$3,500) each.

That would go a long way here.

Life on this rocky sub-Arctic shore is not expensive. With an income equivalent to $17,500 a man can take care of his family decently. A few weeks of sealing can make or break a year.

``You get up in the morning and you ain’t got two pennies to rub together, but you got a chance to make a couple thousand dollars,″ said Troake, sipping tea from a saucer in his kitchen and thumbing through a photo album filled with scenes of blood-soaked ice and boats piled with gutted seal carcasses.

``It’s dirty, stinky and frustrating, but we do it, and we’ve done it for hundreds of years. I just hope the protest movement uses some common sense.″

Photographs of white-coated baby seals being clubbed to death on the sea ice nearly killed the industry. Though Newfoundland sealers no longer kill the whitecoats, those photographs are still circulated by opponents.

The environmentalist group Greenpeace, once one of the most fervent anti-sealing organizations, has given up the protest. Seals are not an endangered species, says Steve Shallhorn, a Greenpeace activist.

But Ms. Bardot, the former French movie star turned animal rights activist, leaped into the fray once again last month, calling for an international boycott of Canadian and Norwegian goods and tourism to protest seal hunting.

``We are trying to put an end to this unacceptable, barbaric practice that’s starting up again in Norway and Canada,″ she told reporters in Paris.

Other organizations, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Sea Shepherd society, also are trying to drum up public opinion against the hunts.

Protests in the 1980s resulted in a European ban on importing the pelts of harp and hooded seal pups. That drove large sealing ships with their crews of hundreds out of the business and returned the seal hunt to what it traditionally had been _ a family-oriented, small-boat subsistence operation.

Sealing has always been part of the life cycle on this coast: The hunt in March, April and May, then fishing the codfish migration. Then going after turbot, then capelin, mackerel and lobster. Now, the fish are depleted and seals are about all that is left.

At Wild Cove, 100 miles to the west, sealer Mark Small says people are desperate and must hunt seals.

``The fishing industry virtually shut down in this province and people are looking for a straw of hope to survive in their communities,″ said Small, president of the Canadian Sealers Association.

``Without the fishery we can’t survive. We are going to lose all our young people and the old are going to die off. With the seal industry, it’s survival for the people until they see if the fishing industry will come back.″

For men like Troake and Small, men at the mercy of nature, sealing means work more than anything else. It means feeding a family. It means dignity.

``You’re making your own money,″ said Troake. ``You’re not waiting for the taxpayers on the mainland to send us down some money.″

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