Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Of seals and sealers

Most people around the world who have heard of Newfoundland immediately associate this rock in the north Atlantic (as the locals fondly call it) with cod fishing on the Grand Banks, particularly since the collapse of the cod stocks in the early 1990s and the cod moratorium made international news and turned Newfoundland into the fishing world’s cautionary tale. But there are other species long-hunted by the local fishermen who make their living from the sea that makes international headlines every year – seals. Each year, Canada’s hunt for harp, hooded and gray seals draws the attention of animal rights protesters around the world, constantly raising questions about the future of the seal hunt as other nations around the world threaten to ban Canadian seal products and even boycott all Canadian fish.

Each year when the harbors of Newfoundland become iced-in, seals appear on the ice floes, sometimes practically walking distance from shore over the ice in addition to farther out on the “front.”

Inuit and other native peoples in Newfoundland have hunted seals for at least 4,000 years, and when Europeans first began traveling to Newfoundland for the seasonal cod fishery in the sixteenth century, the potential meat and saleable furs from seal hunting were both an incentive for permanent settlement and a means of making it through the long winters when the iced-in harbors made fishing impossible.

Increased demand for seal oil and furs in Europe led to the beginning of a “commercial” seal hunt beginning in the 1750s, and the seal hunt shifted from the former tradition of seal hunting in small open wooden boats called punts or even just walking out from land over the ice to an operation on large boats. The first wooden sailing boat headed for the seals of the distant ice floes left St. John’s in 1794 and by the mid-nineteenth-century, sealing on large boats with crews assembled from all around the island was a central part of life in Newfoundland. Even today, I met people who could tell stories of their fathers and grandfathers who were so desperate for a berth on one of these sealing ships that they would even walk to St. John’s from the outports; young boys attempted to stow away in the ships, and it was considered usual for a few to manage to avoid being caught despite the boats being scoured for stowaways before leaving port. With no fishing income in the winter, sealing became a central piece of the island’s economy – second only to cod fishing. It was hard, dirty, dangerous work – crewmen had little to eat, often not enough clothing to keep them warm on the ice, and men often got stranded out on the ice or drowned when their boat was crushed in ice or sank – but it was a necessity of life for many Newfoundlanders to get their families through the winters.

In the twentieth century, seal hunting modernized into a large-scale high-technology fishery along with the rest of the fishing industry. But in the 1960s, opposition to the Canadian seal hunt exploded among the public as a result of graphic footage of the hunt showing both the charismatic baby whitecoat seals that had long been the chief targets because of their highly-prized white fur and the startling image of red blood on white ice. Animal rights activists led protests around the world, particularly in the US and Europe, and in 1983, the European Commission banned imports of any products made from the whitecoats, cutting off 75% of the market and effectively stopping the seal hunt in its tracks. Since then, the Canadian seal hunt has changed considerably: killing whitecoats was made illegal; there are no longer any industrial-sized sealing boats, with all seal hunting now done from small inshore punts and midsize nearshore vessels; and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has put in place a host of regulations on how the seals may be killed, designed to ensure that the seals are treated humanely.

I’m no expert on seals or sealing, but it seems that the main reason people oppose the seal hunt is, well…seals are cute. The youngest baby harp seals, known as whitecoats before they shed their initial white fur, are the iconic cute baby animal with big black eyes, and somehow even though hunting for these youngest of baby seals stopped twenty years ago, the whitecoats still feature front and center in most anti-sealing media (examples of this include a popular post from this year on a vegan blog and this video from the Humane Society). I’ll admit – it’s not pleasant to see the seals being killed (in the video – I couldn’t go out and see it for myself because strict rules for the seal hunt require that anyone coming near the seals during the hunt, whether hunter, protester, or observer, have a license). But these reports are sensationalized: repeated studies by veterinarians and independent scientists have determined that the seal hunt is humane – not only has the commonly-criticized club, called a hakapik, been shown to cause seals no more suffering than certified methods for slaughterhouses, most sealers today use high-powered rifles that kill the seals cleanly and instantly.

Similarly, the rhetoric of questioning the future of the seal populations suggests the seals are endangered, despite the fact that the stocks are closely monitored by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and strict quotas are set to determine that the hunt is sustainable – in fact stocks have been slowly increasing. As the Director of Conservation and Fisheries Advisor for the Atlantic region of WWF-Canada pointed out to me last week, the seal hunt is not a conservation issue (and thus they focus their efforts elsewhere on species that may be less charismatic but more at risk). Most Newfoundlanders point out that if seal populations were allowed to grow unchecked, they would also put even more pressure on the population of cod, one of the seals’ favorite foods, also seen as an issue in the case of seal populations in Scotland and the whale population in Iceland.(I love the painting on the boats here.)

This is not to say that Newfoundlanders have had no faults in the history of the sealing industry. Overhunting has been a serious problem in the past when the hunt was unregulated: as early as 1800, the walrus population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence had been hunted to extinction and the harp and gray seal populations were diminished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Newfoundlanders I’ve talked to have little sympathy for the anti-sealing protesters in any capacity, responses to any mention of Greenpeace and Paul Watson ranging from shaking heads to wishes of unpleasant fates, but the most nuanced view I’ve heard was in a short story written by a man I met along the harbor in Tilting in Fogo Island.

I met Roy Dwyer, a sealer himself, as he was cleaning out his own small boat (in the picture above) after going out sealing, and I went over to his house with him to buy a copy of the book he just recently published. In his story “The Cardigan,” two young people (the narrator and Barb), ask an old-time sealer, Uncle Pete, about the protesters.

“You must really hate Greenpeace,” Barb interjected.
“No, not at all, my dear.
They just sounded an alarm. The seals were getting scarce but nobody would face up to it.”
“But that doesn’t excuse them,” I said, “for portraying Newfoundlanders as barbarians.”

Uncle Pete later says,
“In a way it wouldn’t hurt to have a little bit of Greenpeace in all of us.”

But he also confronts a protester on the ice, saying,
“What do you know about our way of life? Here at the edge of the world, outside of your world, these hands, our hands, battle sea, ice and storm to make a living. You say our hands are soaked in blood but it’s the sea’s blood and at times our own blood and it’s been that way for generations.”

For me, this illustrates my major problem with the anti-sealing protesters, a sentiment I’ve also heard from many people I’ve met here: it’s not so much the opposition to the hunt that is so offensive, but the fact that they give the local people and their culture no credit either for the importance of their sealing traditions or for the genuine efforts they have made both towards conservation and making the hunt itself more humane. Most, in fact, know little about the hunt at all: this girl I met demonstrating against the Canadian seal hunt on the streets of Edinburgh admitted to me that she knew very little about the hunt beyond the information on the flyer she was distributing.

This girl, at least, was a steadfast vegan consistent in her opposition to all use of animal products as food or fur; many people here have pointed out the hypocrisy of decrying the death of seals to provide food and fur for humans when they wear leather, eat chicken and steak (or even lamb and veal – babies!). As a vegetarian myself, I’m not going to be eating any seal flipper pie (as intrigued as I am by the concept) and I don’t plan on buying a seal-fur coat…but I see far more reason to protest the average meat-producing factory farm than the seal hunt.

I went through some of the archived Canadian Broadcasting Company coverage of the seal hunt, and some of the comments from the 1970s and 1980s point out some of the same major flaws in the anti-sealing movement that I see today. In 1977, Richard Cashin of the Newfoundland Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers' Union told CBC that "this is a social, economic and political question about the sealing," saying that the protests were also pushing for Newfoundlanders to give up their rural lifestyle for an urban, modernized, high-technology world – the kind of society that doesn’t like to associate images of bloody animals with the food they buy from the supermarket (a trend I’m not a big a fan of, as I’ve written about before). He says, "I think...that the soul of this province would suffer, if you came down to me in your gross hypocricy, eating meat and wearing other furs, and said you were imposing your morality on me” and forcing me to give up sealing. "If today you take the seal away from me, tomorrow you'll take the cod, the next day the lobster, the next day my right to live in a small village, and you'll put me up in your crime-infested central Canadian cities in areas where you yourself have been unable to come to grips with the problems of your society and it is much easier to get concerned about the problems of distant provinces." Indeed, many of the online comments I’ve read opposing the seal hunt suggest (in often none-too-pleasant terms) that the sealers should go move to the cities “like everyone else” and should catch up with the rest of “civilized” society. Although I wouldn’t quite equate the situation of Newfoundlanders with Canada’s indigenous people, but comments like these illustrate where Cashin was coming from when he said, "if you want to do with us as you did with the Indians, then do it."

In addition to these defenses of Newfoundland traditional culture, generally belittled or completely overlooked in criticisms of the seal hunt, another important question is why the seals have drawn so much attention at all. In 1982 debates in Britain, Ken Collins, a Scottish MP and Chairman of Parliament’s Environment Committee, pointed out, "over 5 million people have submitted signatures on [seals]...when we've debated hunger, when we've debated the torture and the misery of many people across the world, the letters have not appeared, and I think that that is a reflection of the values sometimes that our society has I'm afraid...I think we have to express just a little degree of doubt about the values of those that will weep tears for seals in Canada...and yet will quite heartlessly condone the policies of those who will continue the policies of those that will continue the catalog of torture and misery and poverty and indeed death of people in just as distant and just as deprived parts of the world." Many people here are intensely cynical about the motives of the animal rights protesters, saying that they focus on the seal hunt because the tear-jerking images bring in the money to fund their organizations. I’m not one for cynicism, but I must admit that even within a legitimate animal rights agenda, I see little reason to focus on the hunt of a non-endangered wild species as part of a rural society’s long-held lifestyle when there are plenty of endangered species and farm animals who live and die in far worse conditions.

There's a lot of information out there, a lot more than I've included here, but if you want more information, I suggest as places to start:
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
Canadian Geographic, Sealing Timeline
CBC Archives on Sealing


dlrubin said...

Hi Hillary,

Very much appreciate your take on the issue.

My position is simple: There is a wierd and exaggerated demand for the seal furs. It's a matter of fashion not necessity.

That means that we are sanctioning the rather brutal killing of sentient and fairly intelligent creatures to pander to whims of an elitist business class in Paris, London and New York.

It doesn't seem right to me.

Hilary said...

I understand where you're coming from - I'm also not fond of killing animals for their fur. I wouldn't buy fur myself, for much the same reasons I don't eat meat. But if modern society wants to only kill animals when it is a matter of necessity, then there would be few places where people would be killing cows, pigs, or chickens, not to mention seals.

In Newfoundland, seal hunting isn't seen as something driven by demand for furs but as a way of making a living during months when most of the province's fishing families live only on unemployment benefits. They may only be able to make a profit on seal hunting because of demand for seal furs (which today go mostly to Norway), but they also do use 90% of the meat (a small amount eaten by Newfoundlanders, but mostly sold to Asian markets). Furthermore, many people here believe that the cod fishery has no chance of recovery if the seal population grows unchecked, and worry that if the demand for furs were to disappear they would still want to hold the hunt - but instead the animals would be wasted and the fishermen wouldn't be able to earn anything.

I'm not saying that I want to encourage the demand for furs, but I think protesting the seal hunt by Newfoundlanders who have little choice but to make their living from the sea while not opposing other uses of animals for their meat or fur is frankly hypocritical.