Every year around this time, the issue of the annual seal hunt becomes front-page news again. Previously, it seemed to be characterized as a debate between super-liberal animals rights activists and fishermen trying to make a living in the off-season, but the debate has taken on a new dimension this year. According to this article from a few weeks ago, states that warming temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have depleted the amount of ice available for expectant mothers to haul out onto and give birth. Hence, many mothers are forced to give birth at sea, and the pups drown as a result, setting up the potential for a major population problem when pressure from the hunt is applied.
The entire seal-hunting issue is a complicated one, mostly because of the concept of sacrifice. Seal fur isn’t exactly a popular item, and so many of the seals harvested end up supplying the ever-kooky (and insatiable) Chinese Traditional Medicine market. As with any ecological debate, we must remember that people are involved here as well, Newfoundland fishermen already suffering from mismanaged cod stocks and financial strain, the seal hunt providing extra income not otherwise available in the “off-season.” Indeed, the mismanagement of fish stocks have led many fisherman and officials to become convinced the seals are at fault, and somehow reducing the number of seals will make fish stocks bounce back. This is a frequent argument (i.e. sea lions are eating our salmon, wolves are killing our cattle, etc.) but it does not hold up and cod makes up only a very small part of the seal diet, so little as to be practically negligible. Even so, the fact remains that these people have had fishing be the family tradition for generations, and now they’re feeling the financial squeeze; a recent National Geographic article described how one young man couldn’t even sell a new boat he had purchased only approximately 2 years ago, and fishing as a way of life is dying out in Newfoundland.
While these harp seals are certainly not in danger of extinction, the inclusion of ecological change due to global climate shifts must be considered, otherwise the seal populations will crash just like the cod stocks. If there is going to be any solution to this problem (and as is often the case with hunting/poaching practices), it is going to have to benefit the people doing the hunting, at least giving them some way of supporting themselves that doesn’t involve seal-hunting. It’s hard to care about the environment when you don’t know if you’re going to have food for your family next week, and ignoring the plight of the Newfoundland fisherman in this issue would be a mistake and only cause further division.