Each year, more than 200,000 harp seals are killed off Canada's east coast in the largest commercial hunt for marine mammals on the planet. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been working for years to end the practice, and now the animal rights organization has an ally in its fight: a growing number of restaurateurs who pledge not to buy seafood from Canada until the seal hunt ends.
The goal, says Pat Ragan, director of the HSUS Protect Seals campaign, is to force Canada's fishing industry to ask the government to ban seal hunting.
To that end, HSUS has organized a boycott of Canadian seafood by U.S. restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood suppliers. More than 5,000 establishments, including 1,500 restaurants—among them well-known chains such as Margaritaville Cafes and Ted's Montana Grill—have signed up since 2005.
"I would say the momentum is really growing," Ragan says. "Stores and restaurants really want to be part of this because their consumers want this, and they want to be seen as speaking out against this terrible, archaic practice."
Most of the seal hunting takes place off the Canadian province of Newfoundland, where the HSUS says about 90 percent of the hunters live. The animals are killed with wooden clubs, guns, and ice-pick-like clubs called hakapiks.
While the U.S. banned seal products in the 1970s, there is a demand for sealskins in Europe, where they are used in the fashion industry. The pelts can fetch hunters upwards of $70 each and provide a source of income for indigenous people and commercial fishermen in the off-season.
While the HSUS alleges that money from seal hunting makes up only about 5 percent, on average, of the hunters' income, Loyola Sullivan, Canada's ambassador for fisheries conservation, says for some it can account for as much as 35 percent. He places the total economic value of the hunt around $55 million, much of which he says goes to small, rural communities.
"Why would anybody want to discontinue an activity that's economical and vital to our rural coastal communities?" Sullivan asks.
Ragan has an answer: "It is a frivolous waste of life," she says.
The HSUS opposes the hunt because the organization considers it to be cruel and unsustainable, though Sullivan says only 5 percent of the harp seal population is killed annually in the hunt. Moreover, he says, numbers of the animals have tripled since the 1970s.
Still, restaurants continue to sign up for the boycott almost daily, according to Ragan. To join, establishments sign pledges promising to boycott Canadian snow crab (much of which comes from Newfoundland), all seafood from sealing provinces, or seafood from all of Canada.
“We have a number of seafood distributors that are part of the boycott that are very willing to work with companies and restaurants that want to participate," she says.
Four years into the campaign, the HSUS claims its efforts are having an effect.
The organization reports that the value of Canadian snow crab exports to the U.S. have dropped by more than $730 million since the campaign began in 2005. The HSUS also notes that the value of seafood exports from Newfoundland to the U.S. have dropped 44 percent, while the value of exports for all other industries, with the exception of oil and gas, have increased 22 percent over the same period.
"We don’t' claim the boycott is the sole cause of the declines, but that it is one factor among several," Ragan says.
Sullivan, on the other hand, denies that the boycott is having any measurable impact. He cites a number of factors, including the declining state of the global economy, as reasons for the drop in export values.
"Snow crab continues to be a strong export product," Sullivan says, "and [the boycott] is not lessening the value of our seafood."
Sullivan also cites a 2006 report by the U.S.-based non-profit the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) claiming that representatives of some of the then-234 establishments listed on the HSUS web site as participants in the boycott were unaware that their businesses were listed as supporters, still serving Canadian seafood, or unaware of the HSUS efforts to end the seal hunt. The report also alleges that some restaurants participating in the boycott never bought Canadian seafood to begin with.
Since the release of the CCF report, Ragan says the HSUS has collected signed pledges acknowledging their participation from all supporters. She admits that some restaurants did not buy Canadian seafood before joining the boycott but says their participation ensures they will continue to avoid doing so.
One group of restaurants that has signed up is Lebanese Tavernas, which has 11 locations, including five limited-service cafes, in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. Grace Shea, the company's vice president, says she was contacted by a customer involved with HSUS and decided to join late last year as part of a larger sustainability push.
"It seemed like something easy enough that we could do that would help," Shea says. Since then, Lebanese Tavernas has stopped sourcing its salmon from Canada, choosing a Scottish product instead.
"It took some time working out a price," Shea says. "Right now, it's not more expensive, but it will be."
Bill Raniger, executive chef for six Duke's Chowder House restaurants in Washington state, says his company also decided to join the Protect Seals boycott campaign and has stopped buying scallops, bay shrimp, salmon, and lobster from Canada.
"We bought thousands of pounds of seafood from those waters that we're not buying now," he says.
Ragan says the HSUS's next goal is to get large U.S. quick-service chains to support the cause.
"We are in various stages of communication with some of the large quick-service companies, and we're seeing a lot of sympathy for the seals," she says, declining to mention any companies specifically. "We're hopeful that with this momentum growing, they will want to become a part [of our campaign]."
Sullivan encourages restaurants approached by the HSUS to contact the Canadian government before agreeing to participate.
"Get the facts, contact the nearest consulate office to get information," he says.