Seals and Sealers

By Chris Love


Screen shot 2021-04-25 at 3.26.32 PM.pngThey are like balls of white fluff, shockingly soft fur, the colour of the snow and snowy sky, frame impossibly black eyes that reflect one's own face back at them. For hundreds of years, the men of Canada's Northeast coast have brought their hakapiks and gaffs and clubs down through the fragile skull between these eyes, sending gushes of familiar red squirting into the frigid wind. Steam rises from their young, undeveloped muscles as their skin is cut; a careful slice below the flipper, avoiding penetrate of the large sac holding their guts, down and around the abdomen and up to the other end. The flippers are removed, collected from each seal (a maximum of 12 per man) to be taken home for Mom to make the obligatory stew or to be sold privately. The pelt is removed as efficiently as possible and piled with the others. Steam rises from their young, undeveloped muscles as their carcass are left behind at the scene. Nature will take care of the thousands upon thousands of skinless corpses.

A man has got to eat.

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In this essay, I will examine the hypocrisies and misconceptions that surround the annual harp seal hunt, held every March on the ice floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland's Northwest coast. I will attempt to reason through the fallacious arguments clumsily hurled by both sides of the debate, and trace the origins of the bullshit, which keeps any possibility of real change in a bureaucratic, socioeconomic deadlock. But before anything, it is important to establish; I am in favour of an unconditional ban to the commercial hunting of the harp and hood seal, pup and adult alike. I will not remain objective, as is so often the custom of a paper like this. Instead I promise to remain truthful, to remain unapologetically honest. If my bias becomes evident, forgive me. But there is a right and wrong side to this issue, and the goal of this essay is to demonstrate which is which.

The trouble with the seal hunt debate is that well-meaning protestors are being shrugged off by ready-made defenses easily lobbed by sealers and their powerful allies. Pro-hunt spokespeople will invariably follow one of three paths in defending the slaughter:

I)Boldly asserting that protestors' moral objections are based purely on bleeding heart sensitivity toward the poor widdle seals, condemning them as "victims of 'mawkishness'"(1).
II)Claiming that seals are in no danger of extinction or even endangerment, that the industry is wholly sustainable.
III) Defending themselves on the basis of necessity, that the hunt is the only viable income for local communities and thus no protestor has the right to take that away from them.

And so on and so forth, often also resorting to the weak appeal on the grounds of maritime tradition and old-world sentimentality. But I contend that despite these carefully constructed appearances, the economic depression and cultural loss that rural communities would face in the event of a ban is not sufficient justification for continuing to allow the morally unsound, anthropocentric, low-profiting, and arguably unsustainable annual harp seal hunt.

Let us first deconstruct these pro-hunt arguments. The most important, it would seem, is III); the appeal based on economic necessity. The vast majority if not the entirety of sealers are actually cod fishermen by trade, but by nature of the profession are forced out of work every off-season. These fishermen are barely breaking even, and very often in crippling debt from payment on their long-liner boats. When Newfoundlander, Quebecois or Magdalen islands fishermen can't ply their trade, they collect unemployment checks from the government (10). In light of these unfortunate facts, imagine the devastation these men experienced after the early 90's saw the total collapse of cod stocks in Eastern Canada. When I visited Newfoundland in the summers of 2004 and 2005, there was a palpable outrage among local residents at the government's recent shutdown of many fishery seasons. Punts sat rusting and useless in crumbling boathouses along the shoreline, and it was impossible not to feel sympathy for the honest workers put out of a job by what seemed like senseless government restrictions. Only now am I aware of just how much sense the restrictions made; cod stocks had been decimated by years of government supervised over-fishing, and if the TAC (total allowable catch) had remained at the level it had been, it could have meant extinction for entire fish species.

Amazingly, supporters of the seal hunt now use this as evidence for why harp seal takes should stay at their current TAC of 275,000, or even vie for an increase. They say that the harps are the ones responsible for the decline of cod numbers, an absolute farce of an argument in light of the fact that the few areas in which the fish have been recovering lie directly within seal migration routes, where harp seals feed more than anywhere. But still, the sentiment for re-classifying their practice as a cull rather than a hunt remains among the Atlantic sealers; Magdalen islanders even refer to the harps as "loup-marin" (sea-wolf). This paints a clear picture of the state of affairs in these coastal regions. Men of Newfoundland's Northwest coast are wholly dependent on whatever they can pull out of the sea, and with an average of 3.5 dependents each (according to the Canadian census) (10), they need to take as much as they can.

Screen shot 2021-04-23 at 4.05.41 PM.pngAs an opponent of the hunt, this is the hardest argument to refute. It's easy for us to call the hunt superfluous or unnecessary, but when we put ourselves in the shoes of these economically marginalized sealers, it's an entirely different matter. We can earnestly say to a woman wearing a sealskin coat, "Do you really need that, ma'am? Is it worth the death of that seal?", but try telling a Newfoundland sealer, many of whom lack even a 9th grade education or any other available resources, to find an alternative. There is a market demand from this luxury business, and the current system has brought in money to these areas for hundreds of years, so why ruin a good thing? Furthermore, to rob them of the sealing industry just as callously as we robbed them of the cod fishery seems a cruelty comparable to the slaughter itself.

But a line must be drawn somewhere. We cannot excuse just any behaviour simply because it brings in petty cash from other nations, in this case, foreign importers of these laughably antiquated luxury products. In his article "The Hunt for Balance", National Geographic writer Kennedy Warne quotes a Magdalen islands sealer as saying, in reference to the harps allegedly depleting cod stocks, "I don't want to kill all the seals, just make a fair play" (10). His attitude implies that he and the seals are two sides in a fair fight, as if the survival of each were at stake. This assumption permeates not only the opinion of most sealers, but also the soft side of protestors' arguments. We tend to relax our condemnation of the hunt on the grounds that sealers need to hunt to survive. We equate them with the ancient Dorset Eskimo, who hunted the harp seals of this area thousands of years before European contact, and modern sealers are more than willing to wear those liveries. But commercial fishermen are not Dorsets. They do not hunt the seals for sustenance, they do not clothe themselves in their pelts, and they do not make houses from the bones of marine mammals. They are in it for the money. That is the fundamental difference that makes subsistence hunting morally sound and commercial hunting an appalling injustice. Look no further than the skinned beater (adolescent seal) carcass lying on the stained red ice. It's life has been wasted. Its fur will be exported to Norway, and then on to Russia and Asia to swaddle the ultra-rich in sickeningly vain duds, and the overworked sealer who took its life will be handed a crumpled handful of bills by his overpaid merchant. This is not an elegant cycle, nor is it an exchange. It is a robbery. The fact of the matter is that wherever we stand on the issue of animal cognition and the moral arguments thus arising, one must admit that those seals have lives. And those lives are being taken, not to save other lives, as in the case of the Dorset Eskimo, but to scrounge a bit of money from uncaring hands. Yes, in the event of a ban, the sealers would be poorer. But better a few poor sealers than millions of dead seals.

Screen shot 2021-04-23 at 4.04.33 PM.png"We feel that it is our cultural inherent right to participate in this industry," Said Yvonne Jones, a liberal MP from Labrador, at a pro-hunt demonstration in St. Johns in 2008 (9). Here we see another common tactic of the industry's backers- an appeal based on cultural identity. This one, though probably the most widely used in defence of the hunt, is among the most fallacious.

Are we to conclude that because the commercial seal hunt has been occurring for three hundred years or so off the East coast, that it is in any way more justified? Are we to abandon our objection to a poor fisherman skinning a live beater just because his poor father and poor grandfather before him skinned live beaters too?

Besides which, why defend such a gory and unpleasant aspect of one's cultural history? First the sealers complain about being demonized as unfeeling seal-killers by protestors, then they turn around and defend their heritage as a long line of noble seal-killers. For that matter, when one looks closely at the historical mistreatment of common sealers by captains and merchants, its something of a mystery why anyone would wear that proudly as a piece of their cultural fabric. From the 19th century until the WW2-era decline, sealers were given poor shelter on the boats, filthy living conditions, bad food, and unfathomably low pay (1). In fact, it was beneficial to the merchants (the men who exported pelts to Europe and gave the sealers their cut) for the common sealer to know as little about the industry, and how much profit they were missing out on, as humanly possible. They were pawns in every sense of the word, piled onto large vessels, forced to build their own punts (the smaller boats which would be paddled in and around the ice floes), supply their own equipment, and be dragged away from their families for months without any advance payment. Their subordination bordered on slavery. Author Farley Mowat, who had deep relations with both Northern and Eastern Canada, was quoted in James Candow's monumental ministry of the environment report, Of Men and Seals, as calling the commercial seal hunt "an organized exploitation of both men and seals"(1). In short, it stands to reason that Newfoundland and the surrounding areas would be better off if this ghastly practice were erased from their heritage forever, replaced perhaps by something productive and enlightening rather than this violent, shadowy industry.

Evidently, these East coast fishermen are willing to tolerate a lot of hardship and humiliation just for the meagre income the hunt brings. What's more, they are willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of seals toward the same end. But when you consider the big picture, it becomes shockingly clear that these sealers are being exploited just as badly as their crop. Estimates put the gross income brought by export of seal pelts somewhere around 11 million dollars per year (3). That is all well and good for local communities, but that is just the profit from the raw pelts, only having received basic processing (separation of skin from fat, freezing, etc...). Once the pelts are shipped off to Norway, to be treated and distributed, it is thought that a further 25 million is made by outside companies. Not only is that a great wealth untapped by the poor fishermen, but it is a wealth that they are too deep in debt to ever access. Without strong support from the Canadian government or an altruistic corporation (an oxymoron in itself), the sealing community is so economically depressed that they don't even have the means to open fur treatment plants or form business relationships with fur markets. They are the victims of exploitation and powerless to stop it. In a sense, this is simultaneously a debate over both animal and human rights.

Now that we've sufficiently examined the sealers' situation, we may turn our attention to the seals themselves, and the previous objections made on their behalf. For starters, consider sealer defence I); the argument that protestors are too swayed by the seals aesthetic appeal, essentially that in making the seal pups an idol of animal rights, the protestors have sabotaged their credibility and now make moral claims with no basis (9). Through use of this tactic, hunt supporters are saying if you are moved by their cute little faces and their big pleading eyes, then you are ignorant and have no place in this argument. I consider this the most glaring falsehood in this entire issue. What this argument achieves is to completely negate the idea of human compassion, and turns what should be the most important objection of all into little more than an afterthought. But if a person looks at a harp seal being slaughtered, and is profoundly revolted to the point that they feel unbridled hatred for the sealer committing the crime, why shouldn't that be considered a logical argument against sealing? What other criteria do we use to judge moral transgressions in our society other than gut feelings? It is a crime to kill your dog, a law that is widely accepted and praised in our culture, and yet few of us could actually lay down a set of rules for what makes it morally wrong. Furthermore, what makes it morally wrong to kill a person, or to commit rape? We judge these as wrong based on our inherent sense of the good, and our inherent desire for equality. You do not kill another person, because they are striving towards the same ends as you, to live, and you would not take that away. You do not rape a person, because your desires and theirs are to be given equal moral consideration, and thus to bring such a bad to them is an inexcusable wrong. Thus, I contend that the inherent moral instincts of human beings that make us cringe at the sight of a murdered seal deserve equal footing in this argument as any claim of economic or conservationist criteria. If anything, they should be given more weight, as they are in all other laws that govern moral behaviour. It's easy to lose sight of this instinct when counter-protestors hurl the usual claim that a ban would jeopardize their livelihood, implying the question what matters more- seals' lives, or ours? But after taking a step back and seeing what's actually at stake for the sealers: a little lost income, a few years looking for a new job, and the loss of the most shameful and controversial facet of their culture, it becomes painfully clear that this hunt is a gross moral wrong somehow being allowed to continue on a titanic scale.

So what exactly has allowed it to continue? Why, in the face of so much international protest, have ships still been sent out to the front (the ice fields northwest of Newfoundland) and the gulf of Saint-Lawrence every single March since public outcry began in the late 1950's? In truth, there have been a few hiccups. In 1984, the European Economic Community placed a two-year ban on the import of whitecoat and blueback (pups of the harp and hood species) fur products, in response to the wave of moral protest drummed up by New Brunswick activist Brian Davies (11). This was followed by the four-year extension to the EEC ban, as well as the 1987 Canadian government report that outlawed large vessels, and the hunt of whitecoats and bluebacks altogether. Activists were quite pleased with themselves; Brian Davies even referred to the EEC bans as "...the closing battles in a war which had raged across two continents for over two decades," in his book Red Ice (11). As one would expect, seal takes dropped to the lowest numbers since the WW2 funk, as demand for pelts dwindled to almost nothing. It was the Canadian government that revived the industry, These days, government subsidies to the sealing industry hover around an annual 3 million dollars, coupled with a 5 million dollar effort in the late 90's to find new markets for seal products. It is often joked that animal welfare companies, with assets in the multimillions, should just pay sealers not to hunt. Maybe Canadian tax dollars would be put to better use with a similar approach. The more important question is whether these huge subsidies and faltering markets mean that Canada's government is "funding an otherwise economically unviable sealing industry" (3).

Realistically, the most powerful force in keeping the hunt alive is pro-hunt argument II); the claim that sealing is a fully sustainable industry. This is readily backed by the handy statistic that the harp seal is the most abundant seal in the entire world. That would be all well and good, if the Atlantic sealing industry weren't the largest seal hunt in the entire world. In short, with catch numbers at their current height, the harp seal is by no means safe from endangerment. Though the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) would desperately like us to believe that the current TAC (total allowable catch) is not at all hazardous to harp stocks, Dr. David Lavigne, a zoologist at the University of Guelph and probably the most quoted figure in this entire debate, would beg to differ. He was paraphrased in Brian Lavendel's journal article Cry of the Hunt as having said "...government estimates of the total herd population and the numbers of pups needed to maintain herd size may be inaccurate."(4). This, along with the important fact that current harp seal TAC was established by the same St. Johns DFO office that oversaw the decimation of cod stocks, are a strong call for a closer examination of not just the current harp numbers, but an in-depth analysis of their population dynamics. Most importantly, in this day and age we should not be relying on tired old methods for establishing TAC, and even more so we should not be clinging to the same TAC that was implemented almost ten years ago. With global climate change now an accepted scientific fact, special consideration should be given to all polar species, the harp seal most of all. It may be abundant now, but their breeding habits differ from many marine animals in that it whelps (gives birth) on the ice floes, making its successful breeding entirely dependent upon ice conditions in a particular year. According to Warne:

An extremely light ice year can result in catastrophic mortality, and some scientists have warned that global warming could increase the frequency of light ice years. Six of the last nine winters were unusually mild, and if the trend continues the seals will suffer the consequences. (10)

The lives of these seals are worth something. In fact, I would argue until I was blue in the face that the lives of these seals are as important as the lives of the men who slaughter them. A sealer goes out and kills, so that he can get enough money to feed his family. A harp seal cow goes out and feeds, so that she can nurse her white coat pup. When you threaten to take away the sealer's livelihood, they panic. When you point a high-powered rifle at a harp seal dog (fully grown male), it will protect its family just the same. The fact that we are allowing men to rob these beings of their lives, just so a woman can preen about in an expensive jacket, just so the sealer can make the payments on his boat, is appalling. It is a sustained and unjustified rape of nature and there is no reason to stand for it any longer. The benefits do not justify the harm done, and if it continues until the seals are nothing but a sad memory, it will be the fault of us all. There are alternatives, such as eco-tourism, which brought 1.27 million into local communities in one year (according to a 1992 study). Imagine the possibilities now, if the tourism industry were allowed to flourish, in this modern age of eco-sensitivity. Granted, these sealers need work, and they aren't all going to get it from the tourism industry. A ban would harm a lot of people, and create a lot of unemployment. But on the whole, Canada's current habit of just throwing subsidy money at the industry and shelling out millions in search of new markets is doing nothing but keep this lumbering dinosaur moving, and keeping the impoverished sealing communities stuck in the rut that they're in. The plight of depressed rural areas is so often cited as evidence in favour of the hunt, that no one ever suspects that maybe it is the old-fashioned, obsolete trade that is keeping them in this depression. There are countless burgeoning industries related to sustainable energy, and with a healthy stimulus from Canadian taxpayer dollars, Newfoundland could adopt these truly sustainable practices, and the hardworking men of the Maritimes could go from Canada's shame to Canada's pride.

Candow, James E. Of Men and Seals :A History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt. Ottawa: National Historic Parks and Sites, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989. Print.

Henry, Fred. "Of seals and men." The Calgary Herald 27 April 2008.

Johnston, D. W., P. Meisenheimer, and D. M. Lavigne. "An Evaluation of Management Objectives for Canada's Commercial Harp Seal Hunt, 1996-1998." Conservation Biology 14.3 (2000): 729-37. Print.

Lavendel, Brian. "Cry of the Hunt." Animals 131.1 (1998): 20. Print.

Leaper, Russell, et al. "Towards a Precautionary Approach to Managing Canada's Commercial Harp Seal Hunt." ICES Journal of Marine Science 67.2 (2010): 316- 20. Print.

Livernois, John. "The Economics of Ending Canada's Commercial Harp Seal Hunt." Marine Policy 34.1 (2010): 42-53. Print.

MacKenzie, Debora. "Greenpeace Slams Seal Hunt Quotas." New Scientist 185.2492 (2005): 15-. Print.

Stetson, Kent. The Harps of God. 1 , July 2001 ed. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2001; 1997. Print.

Brautigam, Tara. "Sealing integral part of N.L. culture, supporters say at rally in
St. John's." The Canadian Press 15 March, 2008. Web.

Warne, Kennedy. "Harp Seals THE HUNT FOR BALANCE." National Geographic 205.3 (2004): 50-67. Print.

Davies, Brian. Red Ice: My Fight to Save the Seals. {S.I.:, 1989. Print.

Canada. Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans. Atlantic Seal Hunt 2002 Management Plan. Ottawa: DFO, 2002. Print.



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