British Columbia·Analysis

Seal meat may turn some stomachs, but Inuit country food is smart

When a Vancouver chef put seal on the menu this week for the first time, he attracted attention — but in Nunavut icy chunks of raw whale blubber and seal meat are common fare.

'We eat what we know. We like to eat the things we grew up with'

Polar bears agree: seal meat is delicious. This bear drags his favourite meal along the ice flow in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle. Apex predators thrive on seal meat because of its high nutritional value. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

When a Vancouver chef put seal on the menu this week he attracted some negative attention — but in Nunavut icy chunks of raw whale blubber and seal meat are common fare.

Seals are not endangered, so why the aversion to seal dishes in urban Canada?

It seems people are still haunted by images from the 1980s of white-furred seal pups clubbed on blood-soaked ice — images that led to cries of inhumane kill practices.

Seal dish wins applause

These days, the seal slaughter is considered to be as humane as any food-source animal. Seals are shot and ensured to be dead. And Canada now requires mandatory training for sealers to ensure the hunt is humane.

"We welcomed the news today that the popular Vancouver restaurant Edible Canada will be offering its own culinary take on East Coast seal meat in a new dish they call seal pappardelle," said the Canadian Sealers Association.

A handful of Canadian restaurants now serve seal meat in Quebec and along the East Coast.

The kill

Still, others continue to the fight seal harvest.

Anti-sealing advocates claim 66,800 seal pups died in 2016 — too many, they say.

They were furious when then-Canadian Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo wore a seal skin tie when he shook U.S. President Barack Obama's hand.

A braided seal intestine is bagged for later at a Iqaluit Hunters and Trappers Association country food feast where eight seals were butchered and distributed free to 100 Nunavut residents. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

But there are questions for those who decry seal meat and other Indigenous country foods.

Sealers say kill numbers are overblown — and seals decimate cod stocks.

Have some 'cultural humility'

In a world searching for sustainable, ethical, high-protein food sources, why are Canadians squeamish about fare from our own backyard?

"Honestly we eat what we know. We like to eat the things we grew up with," said Nunavut's former territorial nutritionist, Jennifer Wakegijig, who urges "cultural humility" around food.

Sure seal pups are cute, but — unless you are vegetarian — so are cows.

And a seal is not any more intelligent than an octopus, common in sushi.

And Wakegijig points out while Arctic fare features innards, so do many other traditional dishes such as Haggis and andouillette sausages.

A young harp seal (front) and its mother make their way along the ice off the coast of Cape Breton, N.S. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

While Wakegijig has long advocated for Arctic people to eat their traditional foods, she admits, some do not appeal to her either.

But she applauds efforts to diversify people's palates, and points out finding local sources of protein increases food security for everybody in Canada.

"I don't know how we pick and choose which animals we find socially acceptable to use as food. The idea of just not eating seals or any food on the basis that it's cute doesn't make any sense," said Wakegijig.

Why not seal?

Seal meat, described by some as moose-crossed tuna or veal of the sea, can be dried, stewed, pan-seared or made into sausage.

Beef contains a lot more fat and can't match flippers for nutrition.

Steaming seal meat stew is served up in Newfoundland where the meat in broth is common comfort food. (Sonny Abel/Facebook)

Game meats are high in protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.

Seal meat is lean with less than two per cent fat, much lower than 12 to 27 per cent fat in other store-bought meats.

It's also rich in iron, zinc, vitamins A, D, B and C.

Seal products

The skin can be used for waterproof, biodegradable clothing such as boots, mittens and hats.

And while animal rights groups protest seal products, the world is buying.

Between 2005 and 2014 Canada exported $66.6 million worth of seal products to 48 countries.

Canadian officials see the harvest as sustainable, and many northern Canadians consider seal comfort food.

It's a free food source for hunters in a tough economy, and offers much better nutrition than what you can often buy at Arctic stores.

Inuit tradition

Inuit seal hunters have long fought groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and, saying a ban on the seal hunt is a ban on their lifestyle.

A young harp seal rests on the ice off the coast of Cape Breton island, Nova Scotia, March 31, 2008. Heavy pack ice has made it difficult for sealers to reach the young seals. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

Iqaluit film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of the documentary Angry Inuk, applauded Vancouver's Edible Canada for the new menu.

"I'm happy to see it. I think it's brave ... in the face of such unreasonable attacks. Doing anything about seals that doesn't condemn us seal hunters is a risk. I think it's great to encourage more consumption of the meat. It's so good for you and so tasty," said the seal hunt advocate.

Worth the risk?

Chef Eric Pateman knew his move to add seal to the menu came with a political risk.

"I'm scared out of my mind in terms of any negative feedback on this — it certainly comes with its controversy but it is certainly part of Canada's history and Canada's food history," he said.

And, he says, he's taken risks before and has been surprised by people's reaction. A few years ago he added "rocky mountain oysters" as an appetizer and couldn't keep enough sheep testicles in stock.

This plate of seal meat and rice was the snack of choice for the football game in Sitka, Alaska. (Wilbir Brown/Facebook)
Frozen seal meat is currency in rural communities where game is canned, frozen and shared among family and friends. (Delilah Gover-Delange/Facebook)


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip?