Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SENA14: Chefs For Seals

There are few images that tug at your heart like a snow white, newborn harp seal. Unless you have ice in your veins, you feel moved by the vulnerability of that simple creature, of the expressiveness in its eyes. You probably want to cuddle it, holding it close to your chest, part of some innate desire to protect the young and innocent. Fortunately, it is illegal to hunt those precious baby seals.

Unfortunately, it is usually legal to hunt those seals when they are only two to four weeks old, once the seal has molted its white fur.

While at the Seafood Expo North America, I met with an exhibitor at the New England Food Show, though the topic involved fisheries and marine creatures. It also touched on issues of sustainability, global trade, government subsidies, NGOs and more. It serves as an object lesson for other seafood issues too.  

The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) was trying to garner support against the Canadian Seal Hunt, as well as promoting their Chefs For Seals program and the free Protect Seals App. I was pleased that they were very specific in the type of seal hunts that they opposed, and they even offered a potential solution to help the fishermen involved in the trade. I also feel that this issue presents an excellent opportunity for a collaboration between the fishermen and conservation groups, one would could end up satisfying both parties. It is such collaborations which seem to be showing great potential in the seafood industry.

Their opposition is not to all seal hunts in Canada. They differentiate between two basic seal hunts, one by the indigenous Inuit and the other by more commercial fishermen. The HSUS does not want to stop the Inuit hunts, and believe they have the right to perform this ancient, cultural practice. However, they do want to stop the commercial hunt, that which is usually engaged in around Newfoundland.

In 2013, nearly 90,000 seals were killed by these commercial fishermen but not a single pound of seal meat found it way to market. Instead, the seals were killed only for their skins, and the rest of their bodies were discarded. This was discovered through information from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). HSUS is fervently opposed to this terribly wasteful practice, and they also do not believe that the economic benefits of the hunt are necessary. 

The DFO regulates the Canadian seal hunt, setting quotas, studying seal population, monitoring the hunt and more. Only 6000 seal licenses have been issued, though only about 850 of those people actually hunt. Each license costs only about $5, so it is not a large investment.  In recent years, the actual kills often have not reached the quota amounts, and it seems that the number of seals killed has decreased over the last five years, from 217,800 in 2008 down to 88,894 in 2013. Most of the hunting is done in late March and early April, so it should be starting soon, if it hasn't started already.

A significant reason for the decrease in seal kills is because the European Union banned the imports of seal products from Canada. In addition, there is only one local pelt buyer, NuTan Furs, and they would only purchase a smaller amount of pelts. Pelt prices have been decreasing. For example, in 2006, pelts were selling for about $97 but in 2013, the price had dropped to about $30. And many pelts are sitting unsold in a warehouse.

The average seal hunter earns less than 5% of their income from sealing, deriving 95% from commercial fishing. So for most of these sealers, it is not an economic necessity for them to hunt seals. And that portion of their income is continuing to decrease each year as markets for seal products dry up. That has led the government to provide subsidies to the industry, to help prop it up. Should they really be supporting what seems to be a dying industry? You would think the money would be better spent in another manner, while still protecting these fishermen.

HSUS believes that the solution is for the Canadian government to buyout the seal licenses, similar to what was once done with whaling licenses. A buyout would very likely be much cheaper than continuing to provide subsidies each year. There is no indication that the seal market is going to improve and it is much more likely that it will continue to decrease, earning sealers even less money per pelt. It seems like a logical response to this problem, however the government is unlikely to take the initiative. Instead, the sealers need to unite and push for a buyout. And I am sure conservation groups would fully support the sealers in this regard. Working together, the fishermen and the conservation groups could reach a satisfactory conclusion for all.

To place pressure on the Canadian government, Chefs For Seals, a boycott campaign has been launched. It is claimed that over 6500 restaurants and grocery stores, as well as over 800,000 individuals are currently participating in this boycott. HSUS has also recently launched the free Protect Seals Appwhich provides you a searchable list of the restaurants and grocery stores which have joined the boycott.

Each participant chooses their level of boycott, from all Canadian seafood to just seafood from Newfoundland, the center of the seal hunt. Some of the participants include Chefs such as Mario Batali, Cat Cora, and Scott Conant as well as stores from Whole Foods Market to Trader Joe's. Anthony Bourdain initially came out against the boycott though it appears his opposition was based on a failure to understand the actual HSUS position. For example, Bourdain failed to realize the HSUS did not oppose Iniuit seal hunting.

In my view, maybe more outreach from conservation groups to the sealers is needed, with the hopeful goal of trying to work together to resolve the matter, such as getting the fishermen to push for a buyout. Such a buyout may be the best solution. 

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