Betting sealing will recover is like saving Confederate dollars in hopes the South will rise again
(Donald Trump not withstanding)
ST. JOHNS, Newfoundland––CBC Morning listeners, recipients of fundraising “alerts” from the Humane Society of the United States, and readers of The Dodo awakened on March 28, 2017 to reports, devoid of context, that the 2017 Atlantic Canada sealing season had opened early, with a special exemption from the sealing rules granted to the politically well-connected PhocaLux company of Fleur-de-Lys, Newfoundland, and that, as The Dodo squawked, “Hunters Are About To Kill Thousands Of Baby Seals.”
Listeners and readers might have believed that seal massacres are about to resume on the scale of the killing conducted for most of the 300 years before the World Trade Organization in November 2013 upheld a 2010 European Union ban on seal pelt and product imports.
The ban almost immediately cut the numbers of seals slaughtered by about two-thirds, and the toll has fallen steeply since then.
Reality is that offshore sealing began in Atlantic Canada in 2017 within a few days of when it usually has, sometimes earlier, sometimes later.
The nine boats supplying seals to PhocaLux are fewer than the number of boats sunk or disabled, requiring towing, when the 2005 sealing season began under exceptionally dangerous ice conditions. Those nine boats and PhocaLux itself seasonally employ under 100 people, barely half as many as the 173 who were lost with the sealing ship Southern Cross in 1914, then just one of a fleet of hundreds.
“Thousands” of young seals will be killed, but probably not even 10% of the hundreds of thousands killed as recently as 10 years ago.
The peak number of seal carcasses landed during any year of the past decade, 98,000 in 2013, amid inflated hopes that the World Trade Organization would overturn the European Union ban, was still less than 25% of the quota allocated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans.
The most recent reported toll was 35,000 harp seals and 1,145 grey seals killed in 2015, with few buyers in sight for the remains of seals killed in 2016, let alone 2017.
Denying history & climate change
The Atlantic Canada sealing season continues, to the extent that it does, heavily subsidized by the Canadian government and the Newfoundland provincial government, for much the same reason that some cities in the southern U.S. still fly variations of the Confederate battle flag, more than 150 years after the South surrendered, ending the U.S. Civil War and conceding the end of slavery: the sealing season is a costly political symbol, salving the wounded pride of the losers by denying history.
Much as the Ku Klux Klan continued to exact blood revenge in the form of lynchings by the thousands until well into the 20th century, and still commits occasional murders, the dwindling numbers of Atlantic Canadian sealers continue defiantly smashing the heads of young seals.
While Klan leaders infuriated mobs by alleging that black victims had raped white women, even when the actual issues were disputes over the prices paid for cotton or who walked on a sidewalk, Newfoundland political leaders continue to blame seals for the collapse 25 years ago of heavily overfished cod stocks, forcing closure of the cod season in 1992, and further blame seals for the failure of cod to recover to historical abundance amid climate change that has lastingly altered their habitat.
Truth of the “early opening”
Much as politicians continue to win election in the U.S. South, and in some western states settled largely by ex-Confederates, by invoking code phrases favoring racial segregation, such as asserting “state’s rights” over the uses of public school funding, Canadian politicians continue to pay homage to the sealing tradition, and to pour money into trying to whitewash––or “greenwash”––a practice that global warming would soon end anyway, even if global revulsion does not end it outright sooner.
The truth of the “early opening” of the Atlantic Canada seal hunt in 2017 is that the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans in mid-March 2017 granted a special exemption to PhocaLux, perhaps the last seal processing company contracting with boats in the water, to ignore the second half of the token “whelping season.”
PhocaLux had sufficient political leverage to win the special exemption because practically no one else wants seal pelts at all. The Norwegian fur buyer Carino, the only major purchaser in the 21st century, bought none in 2015, declining government subsidies of more than $1 million offered to the company to continue purchasing.
Despite rumors that Carino might buy up to 50,000 pelts in 2016, there is as yet scant evidence that it did, though classified ads indicate that it hired warehouse workers in November 2016 to help store an unsold pelt surplus.
“Whelping season” a ruse all along
But ignoring the “whelping season” means little anyway. The Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans introduced the “whelping season” more than 40 years ago not to protect not the harp seal population, but rather to protect what remained of the already sinking sealing industry––and set the “whelping season” to roughly coincide with when sealing boats would be returning to harbor with pelts from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and resupplying, before heading to the Newfoundland and Labrador Front to kill more.
The Atlantic Canada “sealing season” has historically run year-round, from November to November, under annual “quotas” set at whatever levels seal pelt demand was expected to reach.
The quotas were allocated originally in response to sealing opponents’ allegations that excessive slaughter might cause the harp and grey seal populations to crash.
But in the last decades of the 20th century, the sealing quotas served only secondarily to reassure the public that harp and grey seals would not follow the depleted Atlantic cod and salmon populations to the fate of the great auk, a dodo-sized bird hunted to extinction by 1840 in the same waters frequented by the seals, cod, and salmon.
Mostly the sealing quotas served to prevent sealers from killing a surplus in years of favorable ice conditions, which might drive down prices and glut the pelt market in the following year.
Atlantic Canadian sealers historically killed from 200,000 to 400,000 harp seals per year, and upward of half a million seals some years, depending on ice conditions and market demand. Also killed were about 10,000 to 20,000 grey seals per year.
The cod myth
In recent years, however, market demand has not even remotely approached historical levels. High quotas have been publicized chiefly to placate Newfoundlanders’ frustration that cod fishing remains tightly restricted–– frustration fueled by the politically stoked myth that because cod numbers have increased somewhat since 2015, the bountiful catches of decades past could restore Newfoundland to a prosperity that in truth it never enjoyed, if only seals were not allowed to eat their fill.
While the seal hunting season has historically been all year long, seals are actually killed for pelts and meat only when the mothers are on winter ice giving birth. This is usually from March through May, with most of the killing done early, when the greatest numbers of harp seals and hooded seals are on the ice with their newborn young.
As the effects of global warming have diminished the ice floes which once filled the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Newfoundland and Labrador Front, harp and grey seals have found ever fewer places to whelp. The seal population appears to have dropped, despite the protestations of sealers to the contrary.
Concurrent with the 2017 seal hunt, the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans is counting seals along the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts this year, for the first time since 2012. The most recent previous counts estimated there were 800,000 seals on the ice in 2004 and 2012, but 1.6 million in 2008.
Even as the numbers of seals have diminished, the weeks of opportunity for seal hunting have contracted.
Born as “whitecoats,” young harp seals begin to grow spots of darker fur within 3-4 days, and become “beaters,” meaning they can be legally beaten to death for their pelts, meat, and oil.
Twelve days to two weeks after birth, the young seals are swimming, and are no longer easily hunted, or retrieved to be pelted and butchered, even if a hunter manages to hit one with a rifle.
Humane protest against the cruelty of clubbing and skinning infant seals in front of their mothers, who are also killed and skinned if they fail to flee from hunters, originated before 1900. (See Sealers seem determined to go down with their ships in wake of WTO decision.)
But the Canadian sealing industry and governmental allies became seriously concerned about growing international opposition to seal-clubbing only in the mid-1970s, after photos of actress Brigitte Bardot cuddling whitecoats juxtaposed with sealers bashing the whitecoats’ heads became some of the first iconic images of the animal rights movement.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans introduced the so-called “whelping season,” now nearly ignored on behalf of PhocaLux, on the theory that the public would respond less if the seals they saw being clubbed were less cute and cuddly than the whitecoats.
Later the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans also tried at ever-increasing expense to try to keep observers other than sealers themselves from seeing any seal-killing, and to defend the annual hunts with a propaganda barrage eventually costing far more, each year, than the economic returns from sealing.
Acutely aware that few Canadian governments have been elected to Parliamentary majorities without winning most of the seats from the four Maritime provinces, all of which had sealing industries as recently as the 1970s, all three major Canadian parties vie to become perceived as the party most stalwartly promoting sealing.
But, as matters developed, the public worldwide responded with equal revulsion to video of “beaters” and even adult seals being killed.
What we are seeing now off Atlantic Canada is not the revival of a cruel industry, but rather the bitter end of it.