I Support the Seal Hunt: An Ecological and Social Basis for Reconsidering Perceptions

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

I’m writing this from Kugaaruk, a community of about 800 people in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot Region. Kugaaruk is on the southeast side of Pelly Bay, which at its north end opens up into the Gulf of Boothia, in the Canadian Arctic. The community itself is right at the mouth of the wide Kugaaruk River and is surrounded by an amazing topography of rocky hills and islands. Right now, the ice in the bay is flat and smooth, but during years with strong North winds during freeze-up, it can be full of chunky ice that is blown in from the Gulf of Boothia. The community faces west out to the water, so the sunsets here are incredible as the sun goes down over distant hills across the bay. It’s a community with a strong hunting culture, the most important being caribou, ringed and bearded seals, polar bears, musk ox, narwhal, and Arctic char.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The project works with local hunters to examine numerous aspects of ringed and bearded seal and polar bear ecology. When a hunter kills a seal, he or she records certain morphometric data (body measurements, weight) and collects physical samples of the seal, such as blubber (for body condition and feeding analysis), the lower jaw (for age analysis), reproductive organs (to examine reproductive rates and success), and the kidney and liver (for contaminants analysis). I’ve also spent time interviewing hunters about all aspects of seal and bear ecology in the region, including their life history, behavior, and population dynamics.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

 

One of the questions I’ve received from community members a couple times is if we, as researchers, support the seal hunt. On a couple occasions, there has been concern that wildlife researchers are producing information that will contribute to anti-seal hunting agendas. Seal hunting has received a lot of controversial media and activist attention over the years, leading to a perception among the general public that the seal hunt is somehow inherently unsustainable or wrong. The fact is that these representations of the seal hunt are simply wrong – both ecologically and socially.

The research I’m working on has been primarily focused on ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Modern seals, known as pinnipeds, emerged as a distinct evolutionary group about 50 million years ago. Today, there are three broad groups of seals that are recognized: Odobenidae, Otariidae, and Phocidae. The Phocidae, of which ringed seals are a member, split from other seal lineages about 33 million years ago.

Kit M. Kovacs : Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Ringed seals weigh 50-70 kg, are about 1-1.5 m in length, and are truly an Arctic species, meaning they rely on sea ice for essential habitat. Seals remain in the Arctic all year, digging breathing holes up through the ice with their sharp claws (I was feeling them the other day, and you could easily slice your finger open on one of these things). They excavate dens beneath the snow on the ice where they give birth to one pup each spring. They are one of the top predators in their habitats and are the main prey for polar bears. As the Arctic’s most abundant seal, they are therefore an important species to monitor, providing information about general environmental changes and ecosystem health.

Ringed seal worldwide range. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Ringed seals have a circumpolar distribution, found in all regions of the Arctic. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Due to their abundance and wide distribution, precise estimates of ringed seal populations are extremely hard to achieve; however, there are a lot of them and their populations are considered stable and abundant. Reductions in sea ice habitat due to climate warming pose the greatest long-term threat to ringed and other seals by shortening the time that this critical habitat is available to them for breeding and basking (when they haul out on the ice for the annual moult).

At least until recently, much of the media representation surrounding seal hunting has been dominated by organizations like PETA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Paul McCartney (I also have to clarify once in a while that I’m not related to him).

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation about the seal hunt. I'm not sure if seals have tear ducts.

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation and emotional reactions about the seal hunt.

Images of whitecoat seals – as newborn seals are called – being killed while laying on the ice, surrounded by anthropomorphizing terminology such as “slaughter”, “baby”, and “helpless” present the seal hunt as defined by cruel methods and unethical targeting of particular individuals.  The use of this type of terminology is a common tactic among antihunting campaigns, and has been used in other well known circumstances. Unfortunately, these now iconic images are never published with a disclaimer updating the viewer of changes to seal hunting laws, the deep cultural importance of the seal hunt, or information about seal ecology to educate the viewer on the sustainability of seal hunting.

I’ll clarify here that my focus is on Inuit hunting rather than the large industrial hunts many people associate with images of seal hunting. Unfortunately, groups with political agendas and the media often fall into one of two traps: they either conflate Inuit seal hunting with the southern-based east coast commercial hunt and present the issue as some kind of monolithic and homogenous seal hunt; or, they create somewhat of a false dichotomy between an idealized “subsistence hunt” and a demonized “commercial seal slaughter”. In reality, Inuit seal hunting is at once a subsistence and a commercial hunt and efforts to present the Inuit hunt as purely distinct from the commercial market for seal fur has been at the very least an oversimplification and at most a deliberate political agenda. I’m also cautious to not paint all in the “anti-sealing” camp with the same brush, as not all animal welfare organizations (as distinct from animal rights organizations) condemn all forms of seal hunting.

I mentioned the cultural importance of the seal hunt. My priority in these discussions is always centered around wildlife conservation. However, one of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it’s located at the intersection of human sociocultural systems and wildlife ecology, so I’d be leaving out an important aspect of this discussion if I didn’t mention the right of Inuit communities to hunt seals. On one hand, it’s not my place to try to represent the place of seal hunting in Inuit culture. By the same token, it’s not anyone else’s place – as southern, non-Inuit governments, media, and organizations – to judge this practice. My time in the North has given me the opportunity to hear about the importance of seals in Inuit culture and food systems. Seal hunting has been an important part of culture for thousands of years, and seals are one of the most important country/wild game foods in the North. Traditional harvest activities are also a legal right for Inuit, established and protected by land claims and the wildlife management frameworks governing Northern wildlife. In addition, seal hunting is an important part of local economy in the Arctic, generating an estimated $40 million annually. This is a large part of the discussion and one I want to respect and address, and I’m proud that as a country, we have finally recognized these rights.

As I said, my priority is wildlife conservation and sustainable management, and I think this aspect of the conversation provides just as compelling an argument in support of seal hunting as supporting the harvesting rights of Inuit communities. I’m not as familiar with the southern commercial seal hunt, so there may be valid arguments about unsustainable or unethical methods that may have been used at one point; however, the efforts of the commercial fishing industry to cull seals as a protective measure to prevent seal predation on populations of commercially valuable fish species notwithstanding, the laws that regulate seal hunting are designed just like any other hunting law, with the purpose of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the species. Unfortunately, these realities and facts of the status of the species and the regulation of the hunt are obscured by political agendas.

One of the primary political tools of anti-seal hunting campaigns has been images of whitecoat seals being killed. When seals are born, their newborn fur is white. In harp seals in particular, this fur is almost snow white. In ringed seals, it may be white or yellowish in colour.

Harp seal nursing a pup. It's important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Harp seal nursing a pup. It’s important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Eventually, this fur is exchanged for an adult coat that is more effective at thermoregulation as seals go in and out of the cold water. For animal rights organizations (as distinct from animal welfare organizations), you can see how it would be easy to equate the pure white seals with other anthropomorphic understandings of purity, presenting them as somehow more “innocent”. This type of visual representation brings a good amount of social and political currency in the world of antihunting propaganda.

From a purely ethical perspective, the question really becomes, what difference does the colour of an animal’s fur make in determining whether hunting it should be legal or morally defensible? If our priority is ensuring responsibly regulated hunts that minimize the suffering of the animal, the colour of its fur really has no bearing. Anti-seal hunting organizations point to the fact that whitecoats are at a stage in their lives where they are still nursing and sometimes actually unable to enter the water, creating the idea of the seals as “helpless”.

From an ecological perspective, there is nothing inherently unsustainable about hunting young seals. This just happens to be one relatively short stage in a seal’s life history, so we need to ask ourselves, do we want wildlife management decisions to be determined by our own anthropomorphized ideas about how predation works in nature? This also happens to be a time when the seals are most vulnerable to predation by polar bears, and I doubt anyone would suggest we persecute polar bears. Biologically speaking, species have generally developed reproductive cycles that compensate for these types of mortality and prevent the species from going extinct.

The fact is that the discussion about seal hunting has been decontextualized and exploited by organizations with a political axe to grind. Regardless of your personal opinion on this matter, hunting whitecoats has been illegal in the United States since 1972, and in Canada since 1987. So there’s really no reason for this overly specific aspect of seal hunting to continue to dominate the discussion.

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Perhaps someone might ask about the notorious “seal clubbing” phenomena? In Canada, all marine mammal harvests are governed by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) of 1993. As with all hunting regulations, the MMR specifies the types of implements that are permitted in seal hunting. First off, most seals are killed with a rifle or a harpoon. The most common rifle calibers that I’ve heard of being used are .22 Magnum in the summers when they’re hunted from boats or high power rifles (e.g. .270 or .303) when they’re shot through breathing holes from the ice after being harpooned. It is legal to use clubs or hakapiks to kill seals less than 1 year old, and research has found that clubs and hakapiks are effective methods to kill seals that cause “rapid, if not immediate, death”. Just to be sure, the MMR also state that anyone using a club or hakapik must “immediately palpate” the skull to ensure the seal has been killed quickly. Some people may not like the mental image of this, but that doesn’t change the facts. Similar to misrepresentations of whitecoat hunting, so too are perceptions of hunting methods shaped and obscured by visually shocking images presented in media. In both cases, we must take care to understand the ecology and biology of seals in order to make informed decisions.

So if seal hunting is an important part of culture, on the one hand, and a carefully regulated, ecologically sustainable practice, on the other, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we view and talk about seal hunting. In fact, there are organizations and movements that have taken this on and are doing a wonderful job, and I encourage you to look into and support them. For instance, after Ellen DeGeneres spoke out against seal hunting with a celebrity selfie, social media lit up with a #Sealfie campaign, where people took selfies wearing seal products.

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

What I find particularly fascinating and insightful about this campaign was that the images were focused on putting a respectful and proud human face on the issue, while emphasizing the varied uses for seal products. Other organizations, such as Inuit Tapitiit Kanatami and the National Inuit Youth Council, have promoted social media campaigns centered around slogans like #HuntSealEatSealWearSeal and t-shirts that say “Seal Is The New Black”. Our national political leaders also promote the use of seal product clothing. These campaigns take a respectfully prideful approach to the idea of being unapologetic with hunting, while also not entrenching themselves in the “us vs. them” attitude that all too often defines hunting advocacy campaigns.

In another particularly telling example, the very organization that DeGeneres intended to promote with her anti-seal hunting campaign actually spoke out against a broad sweep condemnation of seal hunting. The Humane Society, the organization that received the $1.5 million that DeGeneres raised, issued a statement clarifying that they make a clear distinction between the Inuit and commercial seal hunts, and do not oppose the “socially accepted Inuit subsistence hunt”. Even the International Fund for Animal Welfare distinguishes between local and commercial hunts, stating that, “So long as it is conducted on a sustainable basis, and that reasonable precautions are taken to minimize unnecessary suffering, IFAW does not oppose the killing of seals for food, clothing and other products for local use by indigenous peoples. Nor do we oppose the sale and local distribution of seal products from subsistence hunts within indigenous communities”. So the issue isn’t as cut and dry as some organizations and individuals would have us believe.

Now, it may appear straightforward to make an intellectual distinction between the commercial and subsistence hunts, but the reality is that it’s difficult to generate policy that just as carefully distinguishes between these hunts. The reason for this is that sustaining a worldwide market for furs depends to at least some degree on the availability of commercially produced furs. In 2009, the European Union (EU) banned the trade and import of all seal products to oppose what was perceived as unsustainable commercial sealing. Then in 2015, the EU granted an exemption to Indigenous seal harvests, recognizing that these hunts are different from the commercial hunts the ban was meant to target, and are in fact an essential part of the local economy in the North. However, even with the 2015 exemption, the EU ban had repercussions for the economic livelihoods of Inuit hunters by reducing the overall availability of, and therefore market for, seal furs. The 2009 ban led to a roughly tenfold reduction in fur prices, from around $100 per seal skin prior to the ban, to roughly $10 after the ban.

I understand that it’s hard to think about a commercial seal hunt without reminiscences of the turn of the century market hunting and trapping legacies that contributed to such widespread decline of wildlife populations in North America. I’ll admit, I still have a knee jerk reaction to commercial hunting; however, it’s important to remember that the wildlife population collapses in the early 20th century occurred long before the modern system of regulated hunting and wildlife management we have today. Since this system was instituted, beginning in the 1930s, hunting has not put a single wildlife population on the endangered species list (in fact, it’s contributed to bringing a number of species back from regional extirpation and even the brink of extinction). So we need to remember that current seal hunting practices are regulated by the same long-term, science-based wildlife management policies that govern any other hunting practice.

It seems like it’s getting redundant for me to say this, but these are complex issues; these are populations of wild animals who don’t conform to our own sociocultural prejudices. We’re dealing with ecological systems that have had long-standing relationships with human sociocultural systems. As always, our perceptions and responses to these issues need to embrace the same level of complexity. We need to engage in the conversations, admit when we don’t know the facts, and spend more time listening than talking. Seals are wonderful carnivores with beautiful, warm fur and nutritious, delicious meat. In the end, I support the seal hunt, and I encourage you to support it too. I’d also be interested in other people’s thoughts on this particular topic – whichever way you think about it.