The Newfoundland seal hunt: looking back, moving forward

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the commercial seal hunt is a thing of legend. It’s a very important part of the history and culture of the province, which is something that people from “the mainland” — and especially those of us working to end the commercial seal hunt — don’t always appreciate.

This translates into very vocal support for the hunt by Newfoundland politicians and media, even though the hunt is no longer the economic mainstay it once was and consistently requires government support to continue.

Public opinion polling indicates that one in five Newfoundlanders and Labradorians opposes the commercial seal hunt. And many more — 71% — think that it makes sense to question continuing to support the seal hunt if it isn’t economically viable. But based on media coverage and political statements, you’d think that there was unanimous support for the seal hunt in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That’s why we decided to head out to Newfoundland. We wanted to figure out what was keeping the public discourse so one-sided. We heard from IFAW supporters, academics, environmentalists, journalists, and even some very outspoken supporters of the hunt.

And what we heard surprised us.

First, even Newfoundlanders who support the seal hunt welcomed us as if we were family. I had the privilege of meeting some very vocal supporters of the hunt, and we were able to sit down together and have levelheaded and rational conversations. And after some discussion, it turned out that most of those who support the hunt will still admit to having some reservations about it, whether it be the wastefulness of killing an animal just for its pelt, or the killing methods.

Second, many environmental organizations often support the commercial seal hunt — or at least keep mum on the topic – not because they see the hunt as necessary, but because they are concerned about sustainability of communities in rural Newfoundland. Chris Bruce, organizer of the soon-to-be-formed provincial Green Party, explained his support of the seal hunt as a way to keep jobs in rural Newfoundland in a discussion with me on Newfoundland TV’s nightly news. Other environmentalists we met with, who preferred not to identify themselves publicly, were concerned that that the seal hunt is so polarizing that taking a public position on it could undermine their other work.

Most disturbingly, several supporters told us that they feared speaking out against the hunt could have very serious results for them — including losing their jobs. PHOTO: IFAW's Sheryl Fink with local Green Party rep Chris Bruce.

Most disturbingly, several supporters told us that they feared speaking out against the hunt could have very serious results for them — including losing their jobs. They told us that opposing the seal hunt is viewed as treason by many. And they shared Chris Bruce’s concern — and our concern — for the economic hardship of rural Newfoundlanders.

But despite fighting an uphill battle, the young people we met with were excited at the prospect of working to open up the public discourse on the seal hunt in Newfoundland. We showed them an early version of The Newfoundland Seal Hunt: Looking Back, Moving Forward, and they provided important feedback. They also told us that they need more media and information from independent sources such as IFAW to share with their friends and family, since speaking out themselves is so difficult.

Our hope is that through the work of the people we met in Newfoundland, and the many others who share their views, that the public discourse about the seal hunt will open up and people will start thinking hard about what the end of the seal hunt really means.

The current reality is that, with almost no markets for seal products, Ottawa and St. John’s are literally paying people to kill seals. But many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t want these subsidies to stop because rural Newfoundlanders would face more hardship.

And that’s why we have started to push the federal government and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to support a transition out of the seal hunt. After all, 75% of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians support this kind of program, and half of sealers are already looking for a way out — they just need the financial incentive.

It’s not IFAW’s place to tell the people of Newfoundland and Labrador how to help sealers share in the province’s bright future — but the people we met there had many ideas, including increased support for tourism, which is already a much larger industry than the seal hunt, and even larger than fish harvesting.

It’s time to help sealers share in Newfoundland and Labrador’s vibrant, growing economy.

And don’t forget to share The Newfoundland Seal Hunt: Looking Back, Moving Forward with your friends and family.

--SF

So tell our elected leaders to start thinking hard about the future of rural Newfoundland. The commercial seal hunt isn’t coming back, even after tens of millions in subsidies.

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Experts

Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Sheryl Fink, Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Sonja Van Tichelen, Regional Director, European Union
Regional Director, European Union