The seal hunt is an activity that has sparked quite a lot of controversy over the decades. Done mainly off the northeast coast of the province of Newfoundland, Canada, the killing of this species made the news time and time again, mostly because the ones attacked more often are the babies. Seal pups have a beautiful, pure white colour of fur that is easier to sell than their parents'. And, even though the aboriginals living in that area - the Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos) - use every single part of their bodies, right down to their intestines and bones, European descendants do not. They often don't even eat the meat, their only interest lying in the sale of the furs.
Let's back up a bit and study the importance of this animal over the years. As I've mentioned, the Inuit have been traditionally hunting it since as far back as 4000 years ago. They always followed the most ecological way of killing the animals, thanking their spirits for the food and clothes they needed and using the intestines as thread and the bones as jewellery. Then, the Europeans arrived.
In the beginning, the French and English who needed to kill seals did it for the same reasons as the Inuit. By the 17th Century, however, with lamp oil in high demand and animal furs selling at very lucrative prices in Europe, the hunt became economical. The need for survival was also becoming obsolete, with provisions arriving from other countries and from the south to help sustain the northern settlers, who were mainly there to hunt and carry on their business.
The sales peaked in the mid-1800s with the record number of animals caught reaching 744,000. Just like other species, this sort of abuse cannot be sustained for long. By 1863, the demand for oil dropped drastically as the methods to light and heat buildings start changing. The income decreased dramatically, but the quantity of animals trapped and skinned was still the same: the furs were still in very high demand and sold at luscious prices.
As time went by, foreigners started taking interest and added their numbers to the ships belonging to Newfoundlanders. Newfoundland was not yet a Canadian province at that time and being such a small population, was forced to accept its fate and slowly lost its dominance in the hunt. By the 1950s, they hardly sent out sealer ships anymore, at times not at all for an entire hunting season. Although the population of seals was already starting to decline slowly, the next 20 years would be the period where they were hit the hardest, with a decline of almost 60%. The number was estimated at 1,800,000.
When the numbers were known, the activists gathered and formed a plan. A group from Greenpeace made their first trip to the northeast Canadian coast in an attempt to stop the hunt to avoid seeing the species on the endangered list. The government was informed and it immediately took action by drawing up a new regulation called the Seal Protection Act. It was then illegal to do anything but club seal pups on the ice.
From 1976 to 1984, along with Captain Paul Watson of The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, they continued making this act of cruelty known to the international community. Although their actual direct actions never saved many pups, the news travelled the world quickly and the public listened. Thanks to their work, the European Parliament passed a resolution to make harp and hooded seal pup skins illegal in their member states. This proved such a devastating blow that it nearly wiped the seal fur market clean. The killing of pure white pups became illegal in 1987.
If you speak to seal hunters today, they will explain to you how much activists are annoying, and although the word "harassment" doesn't come out, reading between the lines will tell you that is what they mean. Pictures are taken by journalists, stars make their way to the blood-covered ice, and environmental and animal-rights organisations denounce what they see. Many of those hunters start accusing these people of never having seen the inside of a large chicken farm before and of being hypocrites because they only fight against the seal hunt because these animals are cute. But, several of those who denounce this act of cruelty are actually vegetarians and vegans: Paul McCartney and his wife are vegetarians; so are Pamela Anderson and several members of PETA, Greenpeace and The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Furthermore, most cannot stand the site of factory farms, having seen what goes on inside them either firsthand or from a documentary. They don’t think seal pups are the only animals that need to be saved.
The hunters go on to say that although the hunt lasts only a couple of weeks each year, they make a good paycheque out of it. Many of them are on unemployment for the remainder of the year, and the government - Harper, that is - is being a good sport by not caving into the pressure. Even though most countries across the world are against the purchase of these furs, they keep pushing to get sales and never seem to give up after the many rejections they are faced with. Harper went as far as blaming his international trade minister once for the lack of sales instead of accepting that this is a futile attempt. They claim this to be a very lucrative business, with a total income of $16.5 million. Who does the money go to, if this is the total amount they make? The hunters aren't the ones getting the bulk of the payments, it seems...
Then, tradition comes into the picture. The Inuit have started to accuse activists of discrimination, stating that this hunt must continue for the sake of cultural experience and learning. Having been stripped of most of their heritage by being sent to boarding schools, this population carries a wound that is tough to heal; one, nonetheless, that will need to be cured without this piece of tradition. With activists speaking out loud against the brutal form of killing used by both Inuit and all other Canadian hunters, the cultural genocide argument cannot withhold.
Furthermore, the amount of work they get is very short-lived. The season doesn't last more than a few weeks, and the government claims this is a very important part of their income, all the while exporting thousands of jobs overseas to India, China and South America. Why not set up a call center in Newfoundland and provide these people with a solid, year-round income instead of giving them the illusion of receiving something beneficial? The hypocrites, it seems, are not the ones denouncing this act of cruelty.
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Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)