Nfld. & Labrador

Baker: The changing tone of the seal harvest

Defenders of the sealing industry and their opponents have something in common: they are both adjusting their tactics, writes Fisheries Broadcast host Jamie Baker.

Anti-sealing groups and sealing industry adjust tactics as debate rages on

Seals near Bear Cove on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula. (Submitted by Mary Alice Gould)

Having any kind of logical, fully-informed debate about seals is never an easy thing to do because it's laced with so much emotion. From my perspective I always try to approach it rationally, and sensibly.

So, forgetting all the emotionally-driven arguments, let's examine the basic elements.

First, it is tough to argue that seal harvesting isn't sustainable or well-managed. The herd is incredibly healthy and strong and thought to be somewhere around 7-10 million animals while the harvest takes only a fraction of that. And the management for seals has been pretty top shelf, better than some fisheries in a few cases, including a seal collector program that has yielded one of the best scientific databases for harp seals in the world. 

You can't say seals are not a natural, free-range animal. There simply cannot be another animal on the planet that is as free range and free of steroids, antibiotics and any unnatural food sources as seals are. No cages, no industrial feeding or processing, and no drugs of any kind. 

It's also getting harder to say the harvest isn't done humanely, unless you believe the taking of any and all animals is inhumane (it could be argued pork, beef, and chicken are all afforded much less humane treatment than seals). It's worth noting that the people who harvest seals have gone to great lengths in recent years to get all kinds of professional and veterinary-approved training in humane harvesting methods. That industry-driven demand for that training is such that this year, the federal government made it a mandatory part of a sealer licence.

So all you are left with is an argument based on emotion, and the problem is that both sides have been far too inclined to engage the debate at that level. Anti-sealers and their aggressive misinformation and manipulation of people's emotions on one side, and the over-reactionary, angry-looking sealers on the other.

The shifting sands

It appears obvious that anti-sealing groups have some sense that people might be tiring of the over-the-top style of judgmental and patronizing rhetoric.

Sheryl Fink of the International Fund for Animal Welfare did a pretty thorough interview with me on The Fisheries Broadcast on March 28 on the issue. Fink stated clearly that a hunt involving food is completely acceptable, and that full utilization of the animal — which includes the fur — is preferential. We all understand that the group is opposed to any commercial trade involving animals, so the end goal hasn't changed — but the fact that the group actually implied the taking of the animal is acceptable shows that the sands are shifting.

The Humane Society of the United States issued a press release recently calling for the end of bailouts for Carino (I've argued with HSUS that it's a bit ridiculous to call a loan, that has to be repaid — with interest — a bailout. When was the last time a bank called your mortgage or car loan a bailout?) — and that effort seemed to get very little traction in the public eye compared to what Fink and the IFAW were doing. 

But that seems to be changing. On both sides.

Young movers and shakers

On the industry side, things are also changing.  

There's an undercurrent of young, talented people in all facets of the industry in the province and across the country that are consolidating their efforts to grow the business, and to show that what they do is part of a sustainable, natural, humane and worthwhile industry.

The food angle is a big challenge, but world-class chefs like Todd Perrin (Mallard Cottage), Jeremy Charles (Raymonds) and Shawn Hussey (Cinched Bistro) are finding new, intriguing things to do with seal. Stressing that quality of the product — because the natural oil in the meat tends to add an unwelcome flavour if the freshness isn't at a premium — is of paramount importance.

Seals near Bear Cove on the Northern Peninsula. (Submitted by Mary Alice Gould)
The Atlantic Seal Development Association is also aiming to find ways to make that quality count in the global market by working to develop frozen and vacuum-packed products. 

Clothiers like Jenn Shears at NaturaL Boutique and the folks at Always In Vogue (and let's not forget some of the amazing Aboriginal designers in Canada) no longer have to hope that pure patriotism will prompt someone to buy a jacket, a pair of boots or gloves, or any other number of items. They are instead focusing on a marketing plan that demonstrates the product is durable, natural, humane and beautiful.

If you don't believe that's been working, start taking notice of people wearing the products locally, or simply check out all the "sealfies" on the internet. 

On the harvesting and processing side of the seal harvest, people are focused on the same thing that many fisheries are focused on: providing a high quality, professionally-harvested product targeted at appropriate markets. It feels more of a normalized cottage-style industry approach.

In the end, the argument being made by the industry boils down to a simple idea: they want to be able to set aside the emotional baggage. They want to present their industry and their products, free of campaign-driven bias and misinformation so that it can either succeed or fail on its own merits. 

That's the nature of any other industry, after all. 

About the Author

Jamie Baker


Jamie Baker hosts The Broadcast each weekday on CBC Radio.