“There is no market,” but fish, shellfish, seals, & whales are all still hunted
WESTERLY, Rhode Island; HONOLULU, Hawaii; REYKJAVIK, Iceland––Restaurant closures ordered because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have economically crippled the U.S. commercial fishing industry from Long Island Sound to Hawaii, and have hit the fishing industry worldwide, but––except in Iceland, where a case of COVID-19 has reportedly sidelined Kristján Loftsson, 77, the world’s most notorious whaler––that does not necessarily mean a rare break for marine life.
Marine animals killed for nothing
Anticipating an early end to the pandemic and “social distancing” requirements, many commercial fishers and shellfishers continued to land their quotas, both of wild-caught and farmed species, only to see the initial shutdowns of “non-essential” activities repeatedly extended, meaning tens of thousands of marine animals have been killed for nothing.
“There’s no market,” East Coast Shellfish Growers Association executive director Robert Rheault told Westerly Sun staff writer Cynthia Drummond, of Westerly, Rhode Island.
“The dealers were taking tractor-trailer loads of shellfish to the dump because they didn’t have money to send it back to the growers they’d bought it from. Nobody’s going to pay for that,” Rheault said. “And they weren’t allowed to throw them in the water because they come from different growing areas and you’re worried about introducing disease.
“Fresh fish went to the dump”
“Mountains and mountains of fresh fish went to the dump, too,” Rheault told Drummond, “because when you lose your food service, most people don’t like to cook fish at home. The vast majority of fish is cooked in a restaurant.”
Five thousand miles west of Westerly, Hawaiian fishers faced the same issue.
“As the coronavirus pandemic ripples through Hawaii’s economy,” reported Rick Daysog of Hawaii News Now on March 26, 2020, “the state’s fishing industry is taking a severe hit.
“Since the city and state banned sit-down services at restaurants,” Daysog explained, “fishing boats have been idle on the docks, as the wholesale price of ahi and salmon has plunged from about $4 a pound to as little as 20 cents a pound.”
Fish price “won’t pay for fuel costs”
Even at that, buyers are few.
“We’re sitting side-tied for about a four or five day wait to offload. I have 12,000 pounds of fish right now,” complained longliner Mike Wild to Daysog.
“Without hotels and restaurants buying, Fresh Island Fish Co., the state’s largest seafood distributor, began selling directly to the public at fire sale prices,” Daysog wrote.
While tons of fish landed in Hawaii might also have been killed for nothing, “Many of the boats won’t go back out,” Daysog predicted, “because the price for fish won’t even pay for fuel costs.”
Atlantic Canada seal hunt is still on
Long separated from any actual economic calculus, and heavily subsidized by generations of Canadian federal governments, because none of the three major Canadian political parties have been able to form a government in the past 30 years without Newfoundland support, the annual Atlantic Canada commercial seal hunt appears set to proceed as soon as ice conditions permit.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans on February 27, however, indefinitely suspended classes that aspiring sealers must take to get a sealing license.
“During the yearly hunt, which occurs in two main areas,” the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Labrador Front, “off the country’s east coast seals are killed using clubs and guns,” summarized Aristos Georgiou for Newsweek on April 6, 2020. “Harp seals—already at risk from climate change—are the main target, and the vast majority of the animals killed are pups below the age of three months.”
Grey seals are also killed, in smaller numbers.
No demand in a decade
There has been no actual demand for seal products and byproducts from Atlantic Canada since the European Union banned imports of seal pelts and seal oil in 2009, but even then the seal hunt had been heavily subsidized for at least 16 years.
“As first reported by Blacklock’s Reporter,” the Toronto Sun acknowledged on February 18, 2020, “the harp seal harvest last year was halved from 2016 despite subsidies paid to processors to promote seal meat recipes. A total 30,435 harp seals were hunted in 2019, a fraction of the 217,850 taken annually” before the European Union import ban took effect.
“The catch in 2016 was 66,800 harp seals,” the Toronto Sun continued, in turn “a fraction of the annual federal quota of 400,000.”
Fishers push for west coast seal hunt
Despite the evident lack of money in sealing, an organization of commercial fishers called Pacific Balance Marine Management continues to push for opening a Canadian west coast seal and sea lion hunt.
Founder Tom Sewid and several hundred others contend that seal and sea lion populations, which are still recovering to historical abundance, are depleting salmon stocks, despite near unanimity among scientific observers that west coast salmon in both U.S. and Canadian waters have been over-fished since the 19th century, while dams, deforestation causing soil erosion, and shoreline development have destroyed spawning streams and “feeder” fish habitat.
Many of these effects have also been exacerbated by global warming. Salmon prefer cold water. Warmer currents tend to favor other fish species, pushing salmon farther north.
Sealing continues in Norway
“Seal hunting will also be allowed to continue in Norway,” Aristos Georgiou of Newsweek mentioned, “after the government announced a quota to kill 18,548 of the animals last month. In response to the COVID-19, no animal welfare inspectors will be allowed on board—as is customary—to reduce the risk of infection. However, animal rights groups have raised concerns over why such precautions have not been applied to protect the crew members who will take place on the hunts.”
In addition, the Norwegian animal advocacy organization NOAH points out, “Among the crews to go hunting without inspection this year are crew members who have been convicted of animal cruelty after several offenses during seal hunting in 2009. In 2010 these crew members received some of the highest fines ever given for animal cruelty in Norway. The men were convicted based on documentation from an animal welfare inspectors report, and video recorded evidence.”
Namibia lowers sealing quota
Approximately 80% of Norwegian sealing revenues come from government subsidies. Norway in 2014 and 2017 indicated that it would cease subsidizing sealers and issuing sealing permits, but there, as in Atlantic Canada, coastal communities with sealing traditions often hold the balance of power in coalition governments.
The only other major sealing nation at present is Namibia, on the southwestern coast of Africa, a nation heavily dependent on revenue from trophy hunting year-round.
The Namibian government in September 2019 lowered the national sealing quota to 60,000 pups and 8,000 bulls, from previous quotas of 80,000 pups and six thousand bulls.
As the Namibian sealing season comes in what is for the northern hemisphere late summer, rather than spring, and as Namibia has not yet had any medically confirmed COVID-19 cases, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to affect the Namibian sealing toll.
No interruption of Norwegian whaling
“Both Norway and Japan will allow commercial whaling operations to continue during the pandemic,” Georgiou of Newsweek reported.
Both Norway and Japan hunt primarily minke whales, the smallest of the baleen whales, or “great whales,” which are relatively abundant in the coastal waters of both nations.
The Norwegian Minister of Fisheries and Seafood on December 4, 2019 set the 2020 minke whale quota at 1,278, the same as in 2019. But only 12 vessels participated in the minke whale hunt in 2019, killing 429 whales, only slightly fewer than in 2018.
Norway has permitted coastal whaling since 1994, in defiance of the moratorium on commercial whaling introduced by the 88-nation International Whaling Commission in 1986. Norway has not succeeded, however, in developing the commerce in whale meat to Japan that Norwegian whalers have long argued would eventually return the whaling industry to profitability.
Japanese fleet already whaling
Japan, all the while, continued commercial whaling under the pretense of doing scientific research despite having nominally joined the International Whaling Commission moratorium in 1988.
After building a considerable stockpile of unsold whale meat, Japan left the International Whaling Commission in 2018, but at the same time discontinued whaling beyond Japanese territorial waters.
“Three Japanese ships set sail early on April 6, 2020 for the first commercial whaling expedition in 32 years off the country’s northeastern Sanriku Coast,” Kyodo News reported.
“Whaling took place last year in waters off the northernmost main island of Hokkaido and other regions. But there were no voyages in Sanriku waters, as minke whales had already left the area and reached the waters around Hokkaido.
“Last year,” Kyodo News recalled, “the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association based in southwestern Fukuoka Prefecture was solely in charge of the sale of the whale meat and no catch was landed in Miyagi.”
No Icelandic whaling in 2020?
Iceland is currently the only other nation with a legal commercial whaling industry, having left the International Whaling Commission and authorized a whale hunt every year since 2003.
The two remaining Icelandic whaling companies, Hvalur, killing fin whales, and IP Útgerð, killing minke whales, on June 27, 2019 jointly announced that they would not kill whales during the 2019 season.
Their announcement came only hours after ANIMALS 24-7 published data––and distributed it extensively in Iceland––showing how each announcement of an Icelandic commercial whaling quota in recent years was soon followed by a drop in tourism.
Tourism, including whale-watching, is a mainstay of the Icelandic economy, while even for Hvalur and Útgerð, killing whales is a minor revenue stream.
“At first, both companies insisted that they would start whaling again in 2020,” reported Joe Roman, Gund Institute for the Environment fellow at the University of Vermont, on January 21, 2020.
“But Útgerð, Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson’s outfit, no longer plans to hunt minkes, and Sigursteinn Másson, program leader for the local whale-watching association IceWhale and representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, doubts that whaling will continue,” Roman wrote, after visiting Iceland to investigate.
Loftsson contracts COVID-19
And Kristján Loftsson, 77, owner of Hvalur and the reputed “Captain Ahab of the North Atlantic,” may be out of business entirely.
Loftsson, reported Vísir.is news web site editor Kolbeinn Tumi Daðason on March 12, 2020, “is infected with COVID-19. According to Vísi‘s sources, Kristjan’s wife,” ten years younger, “was infected by her friend who had been skiing in the Alps. Kristján became infected from her and was the first example of a third stage infection in Iceland.”
There have apparently been no further reports about Loftsson’s condition.
Iceland, which instituted universally accessible testing for COVID-19 soon after the first case on the island nation was identified on February 28, 2020, has detected more than 1,220 infected residents among a total population of 364,000, but has had only four fatalities, as of April 8, 2020. Icelandic public health officials credit early detection and widespread testing with helping to hold the COVID-19 death toll down.
More than half of the COVID-19 cases found in Iceland through testing have been asymptomatic, meaning that the infected persons were unaware of being ill.