The following article was first published in Specchio, a periodical of La Stampa (Turin, Italy), Mar. 17, 2007. This authorized translation is reproduced with permission.
Seals: Your death is my life
By Davide Sapienza
On one side, animal-rights campaigners and world public opinion; on the other, indigenous Inuit peoples and their traditions. In the defendant’s dock, the seal hunters. After constantly being branded as barbaric killers, they now give their side of the story: "We kill to survive".
The seal hunt. Dark scenarios. Heated discussions. Heavy charges against the sealers by animal-rights groups and European countries. For forty years, campaigns by environmental groups have shifted public opinion to a greater awareness about using resources and our place in the circle of life. But we should also consider the emotional reactions caused by these movements that have had a resounding political impact.
This year the Canadian government decided to focus more on its own sealers, and less on international protests. Sealers wanted to tell their story by showing how they live. Seals are hunted mainly in Canada, Japan, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Namibia and Alaska. Depicted by cruel images of blood on Atlantic ice floes, the seal hunt is subject to the unilateral condemnation of a controversial industry. Sealers from Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and the territories inhabited by the Inuit reject being called "barbaric killers" and wholly defend their role as human beings.
For the Inuit - indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic regions and one of the two main Eskimo groups - the seal hunt has always been an integral part of their culture and survival.
The answers they seek are different from those sought by the inhabitants of Newfoundland whose roots and motivations differ from those of the Francophone inhabitants of the tiny Île-de-la-Madeleine in Quebec. Nonetheless, on February 27, 2007, Paul Okalik, Premier of Nunavut - the large region of the Arctic archipelago that is home to the Inuit - in response to those in Canada who oppose the hunt, stated: "The Inuit join Newfoundland and Labrador in defending the seal hunt and in expanding our market which is essential for all of us. We oppose the proposal for a ban launched by the European Parliament in September 2006". In short, the Inuit are no longer going to keep quiet and the balance of power from the international perspective has changed forever.
A few numbers for clarification. In the last three years, the number of harp seals caught in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was about 325,000 per year, whereas in total, the Inuit take less than 10% of this amount in the Arctic. The total number of animals that are born and raised in captivity for the purpose of being slaughtered and finally end up on our dinner tables each year exceeds 2.5 billion worldwide. For years In Canada the hunt has been regulated by very strict rules: since 1982, there is a ban on hunting whitecoats - young seals with a white coat that are less than twelve days old and not yet weaned (only the Inuit are allowed to catch them). Yet newspapers and animal-rights websites often use photographs of whitecoats to stir the emotions of unsuspecting nature lovers and motivate them to "take action".
One fact in particular reveals the difference between perception and reality: in Canada, the hunting-related industry generates a sales revenue of about 60 million Euros per year - about the same as the salary of one good Serie A soccer player - which is slightly more than half of the funds collected by animal-rights activists like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) or the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). With their aggressive tactics against the hunters, these groups have access to means and resources that are able to draw international public attention to their cause. A recent example is that of Paul McCartney, who was photographed last spring on the ice-floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence with, naturally, a whitecoat seal pup in his arms (photo right).
Such resources are inconceivable for fishers or sealers from Twilingate or the Gulf of St. Lawrence, let alone an Inuk from Iqualuit or Nunatsiavut. The only means of communication available to them is that of being hunters, who in a few days on the ice-floes in the Atlantic, kill 300,000 seals, surrounded by blood and activists’ helicopters. Blood, rifles and hakapiks (the hooked club authorized for the hunt) create an image that is unacceptable in our eyes but has been a part of their culture for thousands of years.
Seal-hunt quotas were introduced in Canada in 1970, and since then, a series of rules have resulted in a population of 5.8 million harp seals in the Atlantic Ocean. But numbers are not sufficient to placate the clash between on the one hand, a sensibility to nature filtered through an urban milieu, since the major environmental groups are all based in cities; and on the other, a lifestyle that relies on a culture of subsistence, a more instinctive and sincere relationship with natural resources.
The moving documentary by Anne Troake, My Ancestors Were Rogues and Murderers (to be shown at the next Film Festival in Trento), tells the story of a sealer, Garry Troake, who died in October 2000, and who had been able to raise the self-esteem of his fellow Newfoundlanders. After having lived for many years in Vancouver far away from her roots, Anne Troake began this project silently reconnecting with her community in Twilingate - a small rural town of fishermen who practice seal hunting. There, old Jack Troake, Garry’s father, tells of a life "that has been like this for 400 years. That does not mean it cannot change. I remember when, as a boy, I began going out to sea with my father. Our working conditions were desperate, but that was our life. We are not barbarians: we are people who are hurt by what is being said about us."
At age 70, in his eyes, there is only one certainty: the sea.
"No one can guarantee the preservation of species better than those who depend on them for their livelihood. Besides, the killing of seals is just a drop in the ocean compared to all livestock that is killed."
"In any case, no one can guarantee the protection and preservation of species better than those who depend on those resources for their livelihood." The issue of humane killing, which the government emphasizes in public discussions, has been examined in a five-year study by an independent veterinarian working group, made up of nine independent veterinarians of different nationalities. According to one of them, Charles Caraguel, "the hakapik remains the most efficient tool for killing the animals in a humane way, i.e., without causing unnecessary suffering. As opposed to rifles, with a hakapik, 98% of the animals die immediately, and sealers are required to check immediately that the animal is dead by feeling its skull". Blunt words that are a clear indication of the difficulties that arise when we try to talk about facts. Dr. Caraguel, a veterinarian, continues: "The IFAW published a so-called study in 2001. We asked for a meeting and documented proof. They never got back to us."
Fishermen hunt seals because it provides 10 to 30% of their annual income that, on average, represents about 12,000 to 14,000 Euros and is below the poverty line in Canada. Almost all the pelts are exported (Norway, Southeast Asia); the fat is used for Omega-3 pills against cholesterol. It is not a coincidence that heart diseases and high cholesterol among the Inuit were almost unheard of before contact with Europeans. Even the sale of seal meat is increasing. There remains the ethical problem for those who would like to see the seal hunt stopped. However, for the sealers, the hunt is their only possible means of survival in an inhospitable and inaccessible land where agriculture is out of the question.
Garry Stenson, a scientist in charge of the Marine Mammals Section in Newfoundland, explains: "Scientific studies on this mammal have evolved like in no other marine sector. I wish this were the case for all species of the Atlantic Ocean - an ocean that is being exploited by sixteen countries resulting in the near total extinction of codfish with nothing being done to stop it." Canada applies "the precautionary principle that indicates the minimum tolerable level for an animal population, which must stay above 70% of the maximum number of animals". Translated, this means that the minimum threshold under which hunting is suspended is 4 million seals. The next census should be held by 2008, but already this year the maximum quota will be lowered to less than 300,000 seals.
One horrible accusation is that bloodied sealers will skin seals alive (the hunt focuses on seals whose fur has turned black that are about two months old, after they have been weaned and are over two weeks of age). "It would not make sense to destroy the source of one’s livelihood since the pelts must be in perfect condition in order to have a market. It’s in no one’s interest to do such a thing. Rationally, we know that the blood spilled on the ice is a tiny fraction of the amount of blood that we spill every day of every year for our food, often in areas where there are food alternatives that we do not have here," explains Jean-Claude Lapierre, president of the Sealers Association of Ile-de-la-Madeleine.
The webmaster for www.thesealfishery.com (which contains legislative texts, instances of self-irony, and provides space for the most varied opinions) was forced to hide his own identity after receiving death threats, and a former CBC radio journalist, Jim Winter from St. John’s, Newfoundland, received a letter stating: "We would like to skin your children alive so that you will understand what a seal feels."
In this tense atmosphere, a woman, film director Anne Troake, offers a broader view: "Vilifying the hunt is part of a process that removes us from the natural state and widens the rift between our understanding and our participation in the natural order of things. Urban life removes us from the experience of death, which is actually part of life. But death cannot be denied. The loss of the hunt is also the loss of intimacy with nature and the creatures that live with us on the planet. It may sound strange, but the better I understand northern societies - that live by hunting, fishing and animals - the more I understand the depth of their respect, because the type of compassion that you find in people who procure their own food is essential to a deep understanding of how Nature works."