Differences between Inuit, Canada’s East Coast seal hunts

IFAW always focused on the commercial hunting of harp, hooded, and grey seals that takes place off of Canada’s east coast; it has never campaigned against the Inuit seal hunt.I remember going to the East Coast seal hunt for the first time in 2001. As the helicopter approached the seal nursery, I strained in anticipation to catch my first glimpse of the seal pups resting on the ice far below. Instead, giant pools of red blood scattered with piles of skinned carcasses were the first signs of life below; life that was no longer.

During my 12 years of observing the commercial hunt, the ritual remained much the same. A Coast Guard vessel breaks the ice to allow access to the harp seal birthing areas, the sealers’ vessels following in a line like baby ducks. At dusk the horizon is filled with sealing vessels, the black puffs of diesel and incessant hum of engines filling the air. At dawn the massacre begins. The boats begin to smash their way through the ice, trying to get as close as possible to large concentrations of pups. The sealers’ helicopter is constantly overhead, swinging wildly as it slings stacks of skins from the ice to the boats. When they are finished, all that remains are bloody piles of hundreds of seal carcasses. The bodies of skinned pups are left on the ice, their little skulls crushed by a hakapik, eyes bulging wildly from their sockets. And occasionally we would find lone pups that managed to escape, crawling through the pools of blood crying and confused, gently nosing the dead bodies of their companions. This is a mass commercial slaughter, not a ‘hunt’ as most people think of it. In one year, the quota of several hundred thousand pups was reached in less than two days.

If you had never seen those massive piles of skins and carcasses, the hundreds of sealing vessels and their helicopters, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no difference between the East Coast seal hunt and Inuit seal hunting. Although I’ve never observed the Inuit seal hunt, what I have personally witnessed at the commercial hunt is a far cry from Inuit hunting depicted in films like Angry Inuk, or on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, or how the hunt has been described to me by Inuit I’ve met. The Inuit hunt is characterized by showing respect for the animal, by using all parts of the animal, and by hunting methods that require skill and patience.

Yes, there are real, tangible differences between these two types of seal hunting. For these reasons, IFAW has never campaigned against the Inuit seal hunt. Our focus has always been on the commercial hunting of harp, hooded, and grey seals that takes place off of Canada’s east coast.

But what are some of the other differences between the Commercial Hunt and the Inuit Hunt? First, it is important to define what is meant by “the commercial seal hunt,” since Inuit sealing may also have a commercial component to it.

Different Hunts, different seals, different management: The Canadian government defines “the commercial seal harvest” as the licensed hunting of harp, hooded and grey seals managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The total number of seals that may be killed is determined by an annual “Total Allowable Catch”.

Harp seals account for almost all the seals harvested commercially in Canada, followed by a small harvest of grey seals. The current Allowable Catch is 400,000 harp seals, and 60,000 grey seals.

Almost all of the seals (over 98 percent) killed in the commercial hunt are newly weaned pups aged three weeks to three months of age, called “beater” seals.

Inuit, on the other hand, hunt ringed and bearded seals, primarily for food. The federal government does not set Allowable Catches for these species. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, an estimated 1,500 ringed seals and 50-200 bearded seals are thought to be taken annually in the North.

Participants in the commercial seal harvest are required to hold a commercial sealing licence, and must adhere to rules set out in the Marine Mammal Regulations and Conditions of Licence. The Canadian government estimates there were about 1320 active commercial licences in 2014.

On the other hand, aboriginal sealers and residents of Labrador north of 53°N latitude do not need a license to hunt seals for subsistence purposes, and Inuit sealers are not required to abide by the Marine Mammal Regulations

Different purpose:

The East coast commercial hunt is a hunt primarily for profit. According to Fisheries and Oceans statistics, the value of this hunt is in the pelt, with 92 percent of the meat going to waste. Inuit seal hunters, on the other hand, use all of the animal with very little waste. The hunting period occurs throughout the course of the year, and targets adult seals.

Different market impacts:

There are very little data available on Inuit exports of seal products, but the figures available suggest that the commercial aspect of the Inuit seal hunt is relatively small. Rather than being unable to sell their skins in the wake of the EU ban, there are not enough sealskins to meet demand.

Some claim that the 2009 EU ban on seal products resulted in Inuit being unable to sell their sealskins, despite the fact that Inuit are exempt from the ban. There are two reasons why this claim demands further scrutiny.

First, at the time of the ban the EU market only represented about 5% of Canada’s entire seal skin exports. In 2007-08 - more than one year prior to the EU seal ban - only 1,101 Nunavut seal pelts were sold at auction, representing approximately 0.4% of Canada’s commercial seal hunt. In 2008-09 – the year the EU ban came into place - Nunavut sales were actually slightly better: 4,059 pelts. Given the extremely small fraction of Canada’s sealskin exports that are Inuit skins, and the fact that the EU market was a very small market for seal skins in the first place, it seems likely that the impact of the ban on Inuit livelihoods is being overestimated.

Second, the EU ban did not result in a decrease in the amount earned by Inuit sealers for their seal skins. Since the 1980s, territorial governments have provided a pelt price support program to guarantee income for Inuit sealers, and to protect against market fluctuations in sealskin prices. The price paid to Inuit sealers remained approximately the same prior and post EU-ban.

According to an editorial in Nunatsiaq News, “in Nunavut, sealing is not an industry and never has been an industry. Though it’s an important expression of cultural identity, in hard cash, seal hunting contributes virtually nothing to Nunavut’s economy.”

When the federal government and others try to blur the differences between the East Coast seal hunt and the Inuit seal hunt, it’s important to remember that these hunts share little in common. It’s also instructive to understand why they are doing it: an internal government memo from 2001 explicitly outlines the Canadian government’s strategy of “playing the Nunavut Inuit card as leverage… [to gain access to markets for seal products] and have the east coast sealers follow.” And it’s also important to remember that IFAW has never campaigned against Inuit seal hunting — period.

In a few weeks, fishermen will take to the ice off Canada’s East Coast and kill as many seal pups as humanly possible in the space of a couple of weeks, in what has been proclaimed “the cruelest hunt in the world.” IFAW will continue to work to stop this cruelty. And we can only do it with your help.

--SF

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Sheryl Fink, Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations