You may have noticed the ads here on Grist from the International Fund for Animal Welfare calling for an end to the Canadian seal harvest. This short, simple, balanced article from MSNBC is a timely rehash of this annual controversy.
Because sustainability is ostensibly the main goal of environmentalism, it’s difficult to criticize the Canadian seal harvest, because it appears to be a classic case of a sustainably harvested natural resource providing poverty reduction for those who live close to that resource.
Here are the two main reasons the IFAW wants to end the seal harvest: It is cruel and puts the harp seal species at risk.
Attempts to assuage the cruelty argument have been made by regulating techniques and equipment used and by increasing the age of the seals that can be taken. The old argument than a natural death (in the jaws of a killer whale, shark, polar bear, leopard seal, or through disease and old age) is no less cruel than a shot or blow to the head carries no weight in these affairs. Once this argument is presented the emphasis generally switches to the seal’s right to a long natural life.
But this argument also has a logical weak link. Seal populations will increase until equilibrium is reached between births and deaths. This means that if the seal harvest ends, the population will expand until the death rate matches the survival rate. The majority of those deaths will be the young and the old, as is always the case. Ending this cull may likely create more “premature” deaths per year through natural (which rarely means quick) causes. In addition, natural populations grow and crash in cycles based on weather-induced fluctuations in food supplies. The larger the population is at a time of scarcity, the greater the total death toll will be. I am fairly certain that even if these seals were to be euthanized using the same methods found in animal shelters, the campaign to end the harvest would not end.
The harvest represents a drop in the bucket when you consider how many mammals Americans put to death every year. About 10 million pets are euthanized annually in the United States. That is 37 times greater than this year’s seal quota. Millions of mammals are killed by hunters. Those numbers combined pale in comparison to the number of mammals put to death to feed us annually. In addition, the seals are not domesticated animals that live their lives cooped up in barnyards and pens where their waste products and runoff pollutes the environment. If the goal were to minimize mammal deaths, the big-ticket items (or the low-hanging fruit) would be in pet birth control and efforts to minimize meat consumption. But that isn’t the goal. The goal is to stop the killing of wild seals.
This brings me to the second part of their argument: the harvest puts the species at risk. In theory, this argument rests entirely on how big the annual quotas are. If the quota were only two or three thousand instead of this year’s 270,000 out of a total population of millions, this argument would be very weak indeed. There were only about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s before the government started regulating the industry. The 2004 census estimated the population at 5.5 million. The quota varies every year depending on how well the population is doing. It was reduced this year because of a lack of ice, and if these conditions become more common, as is expected, the quota will continue to shrink (in theory). Thirty years of evidence strongly suggests that the seals are being harvested sustainably. So, the debate boils down to the size of the quotas. But instead of funding independent research to verify or adjust the government estimates, they call for no sealing at all. A “better safe than sorry” approach.
Having said all this, you might think that I support the seal harvest. I don’t. Most conservation efforts today involve putting out fires. Gaining control over habitat and staving off immanent extinction events consumes most resources. Pouring these resources into a fight to end the harvest of an animal that numbers in the millions rates very low on many triage lists.
I may not buy the cruelty argument but I do support the “better safe than sorry” strategy. E. O. Wilson makes this point repeatedly: We have a very poor understanding of the natural world. This is the same government that allowed the cod fishery to collapse in ’92. According to Sport Fishing Magazine:
After decades of attempting to manage these fisheries they still have not recovered. “Fisheries have continued to decline despite decades of trying to manage these resources,” said Steve Gaines.
The collapse of the iconic cod fishery in New England in the early 1990s cost an estimated 20,000 jobs. An estimated 72,000 jobs have been lost due to decreasing salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest. The typical fisherman now makes nearly 30 percent less than the average American worker and faces an occupational fatality rate that is 35 times higher than other industries.
I would lobby that the Canadian government should reduce the quota every year for a set number of years until it becomes so low that it has no commercial value. I would also lobby that the animal welfare groups use some of their funds lobbying to ease the transition for those families who have become dependent on this annual source of income. In theory, if the transition were gradual enough, there would be no appreciable hardship.
This harvest isn’t doing much to feed people. It is mostly fueling a born again fashion trend. I don’t think the animal welfare activists were conscious of why demand for animal skin products dried up in the ’90s, but it was mostly because such products became uncool. They lost their status thanks to the visibility of anti-fur campaigns. I think they should put money into ads that mock people as being shallow-minded and ignorant for using wildlife products as fashion statements. They should be working to take the status out of those articles rather than trying to convince people that killing mammals is cruel. Most of us eat mammals.
The problem, of course, is that there are billions of people rising up out of poverty and they will all begin seeking status once their more basic needs have been met. It only takes a very small percentage of those billions to think sealskin gloves or whale meat are cool to cause tremendous damage. The sealing and whaling industries should join the Steller’s sea cow and giant auk in oblivion.