The hunting of seals (sealing) is a contentious issue and can be classed into two main categories. These are as follows
- Traditional Hunts
- Commercial Hunts
It is important that this distinction is made from the outset and that people understand the fundamental differences between the two so as not to allow elements from the one to obfusticate the reality of the other.
Evidence suggests that the earliest hunting of seals by man began in Europe some 10 000 years ago. These early hunters would have used the seals as a source of food as well as the skins for clothing.
If one were to examine archeological records, it will be seen that native Americans and the Inuit began hunting seals around 4 000 years ago. As with the early Europeans, seals were hunted for survival as a source of food and clothing.
In the Northern Atlantic, small scale hunts were undertaken by migratory fishermen to supplement their catch from the early 1500’s with large scale commercial hunts only beginning in New Foundland, Canada from as late as 1723. From the mid 1800’s to early 1930’s, the commercial slaughter in Canada was responsible for killing between 450 000 to 540 000 seals each year.
In the latter half of the 18th century, sealing then spread to the Southern Atlantic when whaling vessels began targeting the seal herds. In 1778 alone, over 40 000 skins were taken and by 1791 there were 3 000 sealers operating 102 vessels south of the equator. Seals were not only taken for their fur, but also for their oils (which at one time fueled the street lamps of London)
In 1900, a seal specialist sent to Africa by the British government declared that at least 23 of the 46 off shore islands along the coast of South Africa and Namibia had become extinct due to sealing and were devoid of Cape Fur seals.
Commercial seal hunting began in the Pacific around 1791, with the primary focus being in the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania. Such was the indiscriminate slaughter that by 1802 the seal herds in the Bass Straight were depleted in a matter of just 10 short years.
The first major international step undertaken towards the conservation of seals was the signing of the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911 on July 7th.
Today only 5 countries are involved in the commercial hunting of seals. These are Namibia, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. In 2009, Vladimir Putin of Russia banned the hunting of seals under one year old and in 2011 Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan banned the import of Harp Seal pelts from Canada.
Namibia is the only country in the southern hemisphere to slaughter seals commercially and the only country in the world that allows for the slaughtering of pups that are still dependent on the teat.
Conversely, several countries including the USA, Mexico and the 27 nations of the EU have all banned the import of seal products from commercial hunts based on the inherent cruelty involved. The exception to these trade bans, including the EU trade ban of 2009, are skins that are taken by the traditional Inuit peoples.
Commercial seal hunts and Inuit sealing are two very different activities. They take place at different times of the year, in different places, involve different cultures as well as different species and ages of seal.
While Harp Seal pups under the age of 3 months are the focus of the commercial Canadian seal slaughter, adult Ringed Seals have been the primary target of traditional Inuit hunts. Aside from being a staple food source, the Inuit have used Ringed seals to provide them with clothing, boots, windows for igloos, harnesses for their dog sleds, fuel for lamps, canoes and containers. Though no longer used to this extent, the Inuit take pride in a cultural heritage based on survival that utilizes the entire seal and nothing is left to waste.
In terms of Harp Seals, the Inuit hunt fewer than 1 000 (mostly adult) seals each year. The traditional hunt takes place in the summer months and is far removed from the barbarity of the Canadian commercial hunt, which peaks during the months of March and April with quotas averaging at 350 000 seals per season. In the commercial Canadian hunt, seals are skinned out on the ice, the meat is not utilised and their carcasses are left to rot on the floes. The skins from the commercial Canadian Hunt are mostly shipped overseas where they are then made into ridiculously over-priced high end fashion garments and novelty trinkets.
The indigenous people of Africa have never been involved in the hunting of seals. As such, the Namibian government cannot lay claim to any cultural aspect regarding their annual slaughter of Cape Fur seals which is done purely on a commercial basis.
To summarize, traditional hunts are small low key cultural affairs that are undertaken as a means of survival. Part of the cultural tradition is to ensure the adult seal is killed as quickly and efficiently as possible and that it is used in its entirety.
By comparison, commercial seal hunts are responsible for the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of animals. They are not undertaken for survival nor cultural purposes but rather to satisfy greedy commercial interests that pander to the fickle whims of vanity created by a ruthless and unethical fashion industry.