Netizens rally to aid of captive seals

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Raising seals for the entertainment of customers in restaurants and hotels has sparked heated discussion among animal welfare experts interested in saving the State-protected species.

A seal being raised in a pool at Chang An Grand Hotel in Beijing on Feb 22. Raising seals for entertaining customers in restaurants and hotels has sparked heated debate recently. [China Daily]

A seal being raised in a pool at Chang An Grand Hotel in Beijing on Feb 22. Raising seals for entertaining customers in restaurants and hotels has sparked heated debate recently. [China Daily] 

A dispute on whether restaurants should be allowed to raise seals heated up after netizens across the country participated in an online "taking pictures to rescue harbor seals" campaign.

Panjin Harbor Seal Protection Volunteer Association, located in Panjin, in North China's Liaoning province, and Green Beagle, an NGO in Beijing, launched the campaign last May.

Thanks to the efforts of the netizens, a list of 43 harbor seals raised by more than 20 hotels and restaurants has been produced, Tian Jiguang, head of the Panjin association, confirmed to China Daily on Wednesday.

However, it is just the tip of the iceberg. "This is only the confirmed number. There are more, in fact," Tian said.

On Thursday, International Day of the Seal, Tian and his team will mount a photo exhibition in downtown Panjin to raise public awareness.

"Restaurants take in the seals as a stunt to attract customers, and this encourages poaching. It is a devastating blow to the endangered species," he said.

"How would you feel if you were kept in a narrow, smelly pool for entertainment?" Wang Yina, a volunteer who participated in the campaign, said.

The harbor seal travels to China from South Korea between December and May every year to give birth in Bohai Bay.

The population has plummeted in the Panjin area, from 10,000 in the early 1930s to nearly 2,000 today, according to the Panjin association.

Hotels obtain the seals from fishermen, aquariums or breeding bases.

"The conditions for keeping seals in restaurants is limited, and there are no experts on raising seals there," Tian said. "Also, customers like to tease them, so the poor seal faces hunger, injury and even death threats."

His concerns are not groundless. Dushi Luzhou, a restaurant in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, raised four seals for nearly 10 years. Now only two are left.

The pool is only about 10 square meters and the water, which is green and cloudy, is only about 1.5 meters deep.

"When I came here five years ago, the seals were lively and energetic, but now they are spiritless," said Hou Xinyu, a local resident who eats in the restaurant and watches the seals.

An employee of the restaurant who didn't wish to be named, said: "We have permits for raising them. Besides, even when we send them back to the sea, the seals may not live because they are accustomed to being fed."

Tian disagreed. "It's a serious violation of seals' rights. What is legal is not necessarily reasonable."

The Liaoning provincial marine and fishery bureau confirmed that raising seals requires a permit. The bureau sends experts to assess applicants' qualifications, including capital investment, breeding sites and disinfection facilities.

Permits are issued if all criteria are met. They are valid for five years and can be renewed.

However, according to the survey by Tian's association, one-third of the hotels have no permits, or ones that have expired. Also, there is no punishment for the unnatural deaths of the seals.

The Ministry of Agriculture announced in 2010 that permits would no longer be issued for raising State-protected animals. And existing permits will not be renewed when they expire.

Tian's efforts have seen some good results. A restaurant in Beijing, Regal Palace Chinese Restaurant at Chang An Grand Hotel, has contacted the association for professional help to treat a diseased seal that they raised.

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