A Vancouver chef is making the unusual move of offering Newfoundland seal on his menu, saying he wants to introduce urban West Coasters to "a truly Canadian delicacy."
Edible Canada's Eric Pateman chose the controversial meat as an entree in his restaurant's prix fixe Dine Out Vancouver menu, which highlights Canadian cuisine from coast to coast for the country's 150th birthday.
"It's one of the most sustainable seafoods in the country. It's unique. It's different," said Pateman.
"[Seal] certainly comes with its controversy, but I think it's an important part of Canada's food history and Canada's food story and I think it's a discussion worth having."
After experimenting with seal tourtière, seal tacos and even grilled seal hearts at private tastings, Pateman decided on Newfoundland seal pappardelle, spiced with cinnamon and cloves.
Chefs in St. John's and Montreal have famously featured seal before, but Pateman thinks he may be the first in B.C. and knows there will be critics.
"In all honesty ... I'm scared out of my mind," said the executive chef and president of Edible Canada.
Canada's seal hunt has been the subject of protest for decades, with animal rights groups and celebrities like Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson calling for an end to the "inherently inhumane" killing of young seals.
It's staunchly defended by politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the federal government who call it a "sustainable use of a renewable resource" with economic and cultural importance to remote communities.
Though the industry and government say the harvest is "humane," with a three-step process in place to reduce pain and suffering in young seals, opponents of the hunt disagree.
- Are attitudes around seal products changing?
- Paul McCartney calls for end to commercial seal hunt, again
- FAQs: The Atlantic seal hunt
"The killing methods prescribed by the Canadian government do not equate to humane slaughter," said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International Canada, who has observed the seal hunt for 18 years.
Aldworth said the working conditions at sea — with sealers on moving boats and seals on moving ice floes — make it impossible to kill quickly in all cases and she's seen young seals suffering.
"If people in Vancouver who visit this restaurant choose not to buy seal products, they are helping to save the lives of defenseless baby seals that are targeted by this horrible industry."
The vast majority of the seals hunted in Canada are harp seals, which are abundant, according to DFO, and number an estimated 7.4 million.
In 2015, 35,000 harp seals were harvested — down from 355,000 in 2006 and much less than the 400,000 sealers are allowed to take. Sealers can use rifles, shotguns, clubs and hakapiks.
Like tuna crossed with moose
Despite this backdrop, Pateman said he's not trying to "push the envelope" by adding seal to his menu. He plans to observe the Newfoundland seal hunt himself this spring.
He considers harp seal sustainable, because the animals are abundant and the existing hunt — focusing on fur — often doesn't make use of the meat.
"We're just literally looking at an ingredient that has historically been a primary source of food on the East Coast and in the Arctic for years, and we're just trying to bring it to common people's tables."
The seal meat, cooled at sea and flash frozen on shore, arrives next week in advance of Dine Out; it has a very short shelf life lasting only a few days in the fridge, said Pateman.
He compares the taste to "ahi tuna crossed with a moose," combining slight fishiness with the dark, richness of moosemeat.
"We wanted to do something in a Bolognaise … that highlights the seal but also makes it understandable and approachable for the average consumer to try."