Seal or No Seal? Thinking Critically About the Canadian Seal Hunt

The seal hunt has begun again, with more seals than ever scheduled to be killed, and more complexity, due to climate conditions, fewer seals, the European ban, and more, so I thought that I'd repost this post (with a few tweaks) from 2009.

Every year in the spring, animal protection groups bring out the photos and video of adorable, precious, fuzzy seals…and pair them with gruesome images and video of men with clubs and of bloody seal bodies covering the ice in order to protest Canada’s annual seal hunt. Hundreds of thousands of seals are killed and skinned (sometimes alive) each year, mainly for their fur, which is usually shipped to markets in places like Norway, Russian and China. The annual hunt is the “largest slaughter of marine mammals”; this year the Canadian government has set a limit at about 400,00 seals, many of whom are only a few weeks old.

Animal lovers call the Canadian hunt barbaric, destructive and unnecessary; sealers call it an important part of their livelihood. It seems like an intractable problem…and thus can be a great topic for exploring with students (in age appropriate ways).

Those against the seal hunt say:

  • It’s cruel and barbaric. The seals are killed in gruesome ways (either clubbed or shot), and are often skinned alive.
  • Most of the seals killed are young ones (usually 2-3 weeks old).
  • The seal hunt is difficult to monitor, so there’s no good way to tell whether any regulations are being followed.
  • The hunt doesn’t provide a lot of money for the sealers (in 2008, the slaughter of seals brought in about US$6 million), so stopping it wouldn’t hurt them too much, and they can be trained to make their livelihood in other ways that don’t require killing innocent animals.
  • The seals are mainly hunted for fur, which is an unnecessary fashion item.
  • Hunting so many young animals will harm the future of the seal population.

Those supporting the seal hunt say:

  • The hunt is humane (especially with the new regulation introduced in 2009 year that says that, if clubbing doesn’t kill the animal, the hunter is to bleed the seal out until the seal is dead by severing the arteries under the flippers, so that no seals will be skinned while alive).
  • The hunt is well-managed and a necessary source of income for hunters.
  • There are other countries that have seal hunts, including Greenland, Norway, Russia, Namibia, and Finland.
  • Some seal hunters are from indigenous populations who live in the Arctic, where conditions don’t allow other ways of earning a living, so what else are they supposed to do?
  • It’s a proud tradition for some indigenous cultures.

The U.S. has banned Canadian seal products since 1972, and the Netherlands and Belgium recently introduced bans. In 2009, Russia announced a ban on hunting harp seals younger than a year old, and the EU voted to ban the import of seal products.

As you can imagine, the news media is full of stories about the annual hunt, some opposing, some supporting, and some just reporting.

Some ways of exploring this topic might include to:

  • Lead a discussion to find out how much students know about the seal hunt and the various stakeholders and issues involved.
  • Have students conduct a media browse to find out the details of the viewpoints of the various stakeholders.
  • Encourage students to investigate questions such as: How many people support the seal hunt? How many oppose it? What various groups/stakeholders are the supporters/opposers from?
  • Have students explore the impact of the seal hunt on humans, animals (both as individuals and as species), the environment, and culture. What might be the most good/least harm choices for each? What are the most good/least harm choices when looking at the needs of all as a whole?
  • Have students take on different roles of stakeholders (indigenous hunter, “regular” hunter, fur industry representative, anti-hunt advocate, scientist, citizen, seal, etc.), learn about the positions of their “roles” and role-play a conference at which everyone shares their views and works to develop positive solutions for all.
  • Encourage students to explore important questions, such as:
    • Is killing seals a humane choice? Is there an alternative? If it is determined that seals “must” be killed, what is the most humane way to do so? (Is there a humane way to kill another being that doesn’t want to be killed?)
    • Should killing seals for fur for fashion and killing seals for subsistence living be considered separately?
    • Is “tradition” reason enough to continue a practice that some consider cruel? Can the traditions and needs of an indigenous culture be honored and respected in a way that doesn’t require harming other beings? (Students may want to write to indigenous seal hunters and ask for their input.)
    • How much do seal hunters rely on the annual hunts for their livelihood? Are there humane, sustainable alternatives for the seal hunters to gain a livelihood that doesn’t involve killing seals?
    • When there are other countries that also conduct seal hunts, why is so much attention given to Canada’s hunt?
    • What happens to the fur, blubber and meat? How much of each is used for what purposes? Who benefits? What happens to what’s left over?
    • Some entities, including the Canadian government, subsidize the hunt. What does that mean? Who benefits?
  • Invite students to examine what positive actions they can take, both in their own lives and on a systemic level, to address this issue.

There’s certainly no easy answer to Canada’s seal hunt. But exploring all the issues involved in-depth and learning more about the perspectives of the various stakeholders can help students think critically about a complex and controversial topic and encourage them to develop potential solutions that would do the most good/least harm for all.

~ Marsha

Image courtesy of lilone2 via Creative Commons.

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