Governments, like human beings, are contradictory entities. Consider the seal. Seals are the same animals in the eastern United States as in eastern Canada, but their treatment in each country is completely different.
In the U.S. seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, and every effort is made to protect them from fishing practices that might entrap them.
But in eastern Canada, seals are hunted and killed, with a quota set by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The seal hunt is treated as a fishery, even though seals are not fish and the animals are taken primarily for their pelts, which are used for clothing and home furnishings, such as lampshades.
In the U.S. today, humans are like seals — some are arrested for crimes, read their Miranda rights, charged publicly, allowed access to attorneys, have the right to face their accusers and to a speedy trial. These are the “marine mammals” of the human world. Others are arrested, labeled enemy combatants and enjoy none of those other rights. Those are apparently “fish.”
Cute, cuddly seal images adorn all manner of tourist items from key chains to children’s stuffed toys along the Northeast U.S. coast. In Rockport, Maine, the star attraction for many years was Andre the Seal, who would perform for his dinner to the delight of onlookers, twice a day, every summer.
In the U.S., only a few native populations are allowed to harvest seals in order to serve their cultural traditions — otherwise, to target seals in any way for killing is illegal. Only in a few specific fisheries situations are accidental seal takings allowed by federal fisheries managers.
The Canadian seal hunt is contentious, and has attracted international attention since the 1970s when film stars such as Brigitte Bardot traveled to Newfoundland to protest the clubbing and skinning of baby harp seals, then prized by fur-coat makers for their snowy pelts.
In those days, the ‘white coats’, the newborn baby seals, were whacked on the head and skinned on the spot. Many were still alive when skinned. Pictures of the bloody aftermath on the ice proved too sickening for the general public. The protests worked.
Harvest of baby ‘white coat’ harp seals was banned in 1987, but today, up to 97 percent of the seals killed for their pelts are under three months old, not far beyond the white stage. Usually the seals are shot, although 10 percent are still clubbed with the “hakapik” — a club with a sharp hook at one end. This year, aging rock star Sir Paul McCartney and his then-wife, Heather, showed up to protest the hunt.
Sometimes seals are shot on the ice and sometimes from boats while they are swimming. Surveys indicate that many seals shot in the water sink to the bottom and are not retrieved, so it is estimated that for every quota harvested, a large percentage are also killed and lost. This year, the quota was set at around 350,000 animals.
Still, Eastern Canadians will tell you the harvest is not large enough. The seal hunt adds millions to a struggling economy and along with harvesting, provides processing work onshore. Work is scarce in many of the small towns in Newfoundland where most seals are hunted.
In Canada, seals are blamed by many fishermen and managers as well as a few scientists for retarding the return of the cod in numbers large enough for a commercial fishery. In the recent past, some fisheries ministers have called for a larger “cull” to drastically decrease the seal population and enhance the chances for the cod.
However, many factors, including overfishing, destroyed the cod stocks and some of those factors have not yet been fully identified by scientists. Coincidentally, stocks of the cod’s favorite food, the small, pelagic capelin, are also at a low ebb. Seals would rather eat capelin than cod. So are the seals keeping the cod from returning? For many, the jury’s still out.
The owner of a successful cosmetics firm went one better than the McCartneys and Ms. Bardot this year. She didn’t just protest — she offered to buy out the Prince Edward Island seal hunt by purchasing licenses from the fishermen, thereby following a growing new trend of buying natural resources to protect them. So far, PEI has not accepted her offer.
Perhaps the success of the current administration in Washington at redefining so many things long taken for granted in this country, like the Geneva Convention and the rights of defendants, has encouraged a group of fishermen in Chatham, MA, to redefine marine mammals as enemy combatants.
Members of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association say the grey seals off Chatham are “out of control” and eat too many fish. One fisherman, apparently sensitive to the bad publicity Canada’s seal hunt regularly receives, even said he hoped to find management techniques that “don’t include clubbing baby seals.”
On the west coast, Oregon and Washington officials are calling for a ‘limited selected lethal removal’ of sea lions from the Columbia River, saying the protected mammals have multiplied so rapidly they are devouring spawning salmon stocks.
Convincing arguments exist for both sides of the seal issue in each country on each coast. Like humans themselves, regulations for fish or marine mammals are complicated, demanding serious consideration and open-minded discussion to avoid the simple-minded sloganeering that passes for political thinking these days. For true, reasonable dialogue to occur, we must not revert to merely changing terminology; instead we should remember we are dealing with “marine mammals” and not ‘”fish.”