With sadness I read the news this week: the non-aboriginal seal hunt is set to open off the East Coast of Canada on April 10th. While the quota has yet to be announced, it is expected to remain at 400,000 harp seals, 60,000 grey seals and 8,200 hooded seals -- although it seems likely that only a fraction of that will be reached.
Media reports suggest that processors may be willing to buy up to 60,000 seal skins this year, but with processors acknowledging they already have stockpiles of unwanted skins, it is unclear what will be done with them.
There is no question that commercial sealing is an industry in decline. Despite tens of millions of dollars in government support, the hunt is at one of its lowest points in history. Processors have relied heavily on government loans in recent years in order to purchase sealskins, but with 35 countries now banning the import of seal products few commercial markets remain.
As a public policy, the seal hunt has been a failure.
So why does it continue?
Were it not for politicians' eagerness to capitalize on this fear, the sealing industry would have disappeared long ago.
In Atlantic Canada, the seal hunt is an issue protected by intimidation and politics, and driven by fear. The seal hunt is an important part of the region's culture and history, and is symbolic of a way of life in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. The fact that the seal hunt was -- and continues to be -- a story of human tragedy, worker exploitation, and tragic loss of life at sea is lost in a sepia-toned haze of nostalgia.
The seal hunt is alive and well in the hearts and minds of those who band together to defend what is perceived to be an attack on their culture, traditions, and way of life -- while in reality, the hunt has all but disappeared. Fewer than a thousand sealers have participated in the hunt in recent years, with government memos acknowledging the hunt costs five times more to administer than its export value.
Were it not for politicians' eagerness to capitalize on this fear, the sealing industry would have disappeared long ago. But defending the seal hunt, combined with spending millions of dollars to create the illusion of a non-existent market for seal products, has been a political win since the Liberal government set out to revive the industry in 1996.
And although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise of "real change," it is now clear that when it comes to the non-aboriginal seal hunt, his government intends to defend the status quo.
The Canadian government's unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstance threatens not only harp seals, who are facing increased mortality from climate change as it reduces the ice floes they need to give birth to their pups. It also threatens sealers and puts them at unnecessary risk. It has been eight years since the tragic sinking of the sealing vessel Acadien II. Like most sealing vessels, the boat was not designed, constructed, or adequately modified for navigation in ice.
It's time to admit our failures, to stop romanticizing the past, and to start talking about the future of the non-aboriginal seal hunt.
Shockingly, the government has continuously refused to act on the Transportation Safety Board recommendation that all fishing vessels operating in ice -including those participating in the seal hunt -- are structurally suited for their operating environment, neglecting to include this in the most recent updates to the Fishing Vessel Safety Regulations proposed by the Transportation Safety Board.
It's 2016. Times have changed. The sealing industry has changed. And the Canadian government has changed in name -- but so far, not in action. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians deserve better than empty promises and a dependence on an industry that is cruel, incredibly dangerous, brings in very little income for the sealers involved, and relies on government subsidies to exist.
It's time to admit our failures, to stop romanticizing the past, and to start talking about the future of the non-aboriginal seal hunt. Please take action, and ask Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop propping up the commercial sealing industry. It's time to bring real change to Atlantic Canada.
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