Death on the ice
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Most of us thought it had stopped a generation ago. But each year, in the strange, nearly pristine wilderness of eastern Canada, men slaughter hundreds of thousands of seals in a bloody and brutal trade. As fish stocks have collapsed, the fishermen of Newfoundland have reverted to the age-old ritual of harvesting one of the region's natural resources - harp and hooded seals.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, emotive pictures of baby seals crying as they were clubbed to death caused uproar. The world was horrified that the pups were being slaughtered for the vanity of a few who liked to wear fur coats, and the EC and others banned the import of the white pelts of the baby harp seal and the blue fur from the juvenile hooded seals.

The Canadian government responded by outlawing the killing of baby seals except for the hunters' consumption. The whole trade in seals faded away and the fishermen turned to increasingly efficient methods of harvesting other marine stock, especially cod. Now that particular resource has been squandered, it is again the turn of the seals. This time it is anything older than the new-born pups and they are being sold for meat, used as leather and their blubber turned into a health supplement.

Photo-journalist Marc ClŽriot, in a remarkable report, is the first outsider to witness the carnage. The truth from the frozen killing fields is as bleak and shocking as the now faded images of the cull of the baby seals.

Five thirty am: David Hearn steers his boat away from the dock, heading out of Petty Harbour's sheltered cove. The sun rises on the horizon, silhouetting the drifting icebergs. The small-talk in the cramped, smoky cabin revolves around yesterday's catches and the ice-hockey league.

The sun breaks through the clouds and lures the seals on to the ice floes to sunbathe. All seven men on board are on the look-out. Billy Walsh and John Hearn scrutinise the ice from the roof of the wheel-house, with binoculars. Dean Bidgood, Jim Walsh, and Billy Hearn are loading their guns. Two 370- and a 320-calibre; high velocity, high impact rifles, equipped with telescopic sights. 'Seal in the water! Two o'clock!' There it is, raising its head high above water, taking in a deep breath. Billy's gun is already aimed. Crack! The bullet hits the water and the seal dives to safety.

As the jokes die out, we head further into the ice. The jagged Newfoundland coast is only a thin black line on the horizon some 20 nautical miles behind us. Someone cries: 'A beater - on the ice!' (A beater is the name given to young harp seals who are a couple of days past the whitecoat stage but are not yet one year old.)

Billy signals to port, directing the boat straight to it. The hunters are whispering now, their rifles aimed. Unaware, the small animal lifts its head. The deadly silence is broken by three deafening detonations and then the boat crashes into the ice float. Dean jumps down next to the bleeding seal; it is still wriggling. He finishes it, with a swing of the hakapic, a long Norwegian club, mounted with a hammer and a hook at one end. The hammer side is used to kill seals, the hook is for the sealers' safety on the ice.

Dean pushes his hand into the gushing blood and smears his face with it, like war paint. He tells me: 'It dims the reflection of the snow.' He throws the bloodied body into the boat and scrambles on board. As the boat moves on, the seal is dragged to the fore-deck where the rest of the crew repeat the warrior ritual.

Michael Hearn, the veteran, his long curved sealing knife in hand, turns the seal belly-up. With a single straight cut, he opens it from head to tail. The next stroke severs the main arteries and the seal is left to bleed on the main deck. 'The blood should not stay within the carcass,' he says. 'It spoils the meat and burns the pelt.'

Another seal is seen. 'He's mine,' claims Billy. A single shot breaks the silence. 'Right on, I got it!' But the wounded seal recovers from the shock and launches itself into the water, leaving a bubbling red trail behind itself. The boat comes to a halt, all eyes peering at the ocean. 'Shit, he's sunk!' 'No, the bastard will have to come up for air!' Suddenly, there he is, propping himself up on the ice, bleeding. Another bullet puts an end to his misery. Dean hooks him through the head as the boat sails by on its way to the next seal.

This time Dean gets a chance to approach on foot. He walks quickly on the ice, bent double, almost running. The defenceless beater retracts its head into its neck, hoping for a miracle. Another swift swing, down comes the hakapic, once, twice. In a bloody arc, the dying seal joins the other bodies on deck.

At the end of the day we come across a little whitecoat (a harp seal pup - they keep their white coats for their first 15 days) drying in the sun. It is a rather unusual sighting so late in the season. As it lifts its head to look at us, a single big calibre shot tears my right ear-drum. Billy has just killed it. I am deafened, surprised and horrified. I am advised not to take any pictures. Most of the sealers refute, or at least try to distance themselves, from the illegal whitecoat hunting. It was banned by the Canadian government in 1986, having bowed to outside pressures. However, licensed sealers are permitted to take whitecoats for their own consumption.

The pup is hooked with the gaff. Only a couple of days separates the legal commercial prey from the tiny, white, fluffy body, now lying on top of the piled, dead beaters. To avoid a damning photograph, one of the crew grabs hold of the pup and dumps it back in the water.

A large sea bird crosses Billy's line of fire. It crashes on to an ice floe, shot through the wing. Moments later, Billy would have meted out the same treatment to a passing whale, had he not been at the helm at the time.

At last the light gets dimmer. The ice fields turn blue. In the distance, below the clouds, the horizon catches fire. It is time for the 'grand finale' of the day, the disembowelling of the seals. While John Hearn holds the boat by a rope, the two Walsh brothers throw the dead bodies back on to an ice floe. All join in the bloody business of pelting and gutting. It goes on and on, until the white floe and the sea around it have turned red. Some of the seals have been dead for more than six hours. The carcasses are packed into a large plastic container and the pelts, with their layer of blubber, are piled on the fore-deck next to the morning catch. The hearts, livers and fore-flippers are kept sorted in big vats filled with ice. The remains, heads, guts and hind flippers, are left on the reddened ice as food for scavengers

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