How seals became the latest poster species for climate change.
Nathalie Rothschild on how seals became the latest cuddly symbol of climate change – and why claims of their demise are exaggerated.
Global Warming ‘poster species’ come and go. Box office hits March of the Penguins and Happy Feet put Empire Penguins at the top of the climate change victim list during Christmas 2005 and 2006. But since the photograph of two polar bears seemingly stranded on an ice floe in Alaska came to the world’s attention, penguins are so last year.
The two ‘helpless’ land carnivores were soon replaced in the public’s affections when Knut, a polar bear cub at Berlin zoo, survived after being rejected by his mother. Now, Knut’s 15 minutes of fame may be over because the annual Canadian seal hunt is on. Harp seals – weaker and more wide-eyed than penguins and polar bears – are being hunted so that humans can use their fur, fat and meat. Some people find that distressing – and claim that climate change is already endangering the seals.
But for a species in danger, there are a lot of seals about. The last seal population census in 2004 estimated the East Coast harp seal herd at around 5.8million. This figure is now down to 5.5million (1). In other words, there’s still plenty to go around; those hoping to add a seal fur coat to their wardrobe don’t need to worry and Inuits can still use the seals for food, tools, energy, clothing and art.
Asked who’s afraid of seal hunting, conservationists would no doubt respond ‘the seals!’ But conservationists seem to see the world as a real-life version of Disney films and project their own sentimentality on to the animal world. It seems that the cuter the animal is, the more worthy it is of being preserved. Maybe that’s why most photos on the websites of the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Humane Society of the United States, who are at the forefront of the campaign against the Canadian seal hunt, are of white and cuddly baby seals who look cute and helpless in contrast to the grey, flabby lumps of fat they turn into once they shed their soft pelts.
Images of clubbed and shot seals, their blood splattered bright red against the white surroundings and spreading across the ice, are not for the weak-stomached. Many were horrified when such images were beamed on to TV sets around the world in the 1970s. Back then, the US banned imports of seal products and a decade later, the EU banned white pelt imports. The Canadian government reduced quotas for seal hunting to as low as 15,000 annually – mainly for meat and local handicraft – but the upper limit has increased since then (2).
Claims that ice floes are melting due to global warming add fuel to conservationists’ shrill protests: ‘Despite ice disaster, 270,000 seals to die’, says IFAW (3). In one of her blog entries, Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society wrote about her ‘new friend’, a three-week old baby seal that she managed to get close to in the Gulf of St Lawrence last Friday: ‘In just a few days, the boats will come, and the pristine ice will be transformed into an open air slaughterhouse. 270,000 will be brutally clubbed and shot to death to make fashion accessories. My new friend will be searched out and slaughtered, his carcass tossed carelessly into the sea.’ (4)
The Canadian fishing authorities seem to agree that the ice melt is having an impact on seal numbers and have reduced the hunting quota from 335,000 cubs last season to 270,000 this year. The hunt has been delayed while fisheries officials try to get a more complete picture of the extent of the ice melt. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa has said it will be stricter on hunters, reducing the amount of time they are allowed to remain on the ice. Any vessels caught breaking the quota will be punished with a lower share next season (5).
Despite these precautions, Aldworth believes seals are facing a ‘very serious ecological disaster’. Mike Hammil, a research scientist with the federal Fisheries Department, believes that 100,000 extra pups will be lost this year due to poor ice conditions. Yet he says ‘it’s not an ecological disaster’ and that there is no way of knowing whether the poor ice conditions are the result of global warming or part of a natural cycle (6).
Many celebrities have taken up the plight of the seals. Last year alone, Brigitte Bardot travelled to Ottawa to protest the hunt, Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills McCartney – then in happier times – posed with a baby seal in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and Pamela Anderson requested a meeting with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper – but the meeting was rejected. Morrissey did all Canadians a favour when he refused to go there during his world tour (7).
Conservationists react against human interventions in animal life, yet there is no logic in trying to preserve polar bears one week and seals the next. Polar bears eat seals. Seals, in turn, eat fish and humans should be allowed to turn any animal they want into experiment samples, food, clothes or accessories. As for Aldworth and the other conservationists, they should get themselves some human friends – cute or ugly, they make for much better conversation.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.
(1) Officials to announce details of seal hunt, CTV, 28 March 2007
(2) Canada embarks on mass seal hunt, BBC News, 13 April 2004
(3) See International Fund for Animal Welfare website
(4) See the Humane Society of the United States’ Canadian Wildlife Issues Director Rebecca Aldworth’s blog.
(5) Climate change: Canada’s cruel harvest, The Independent, 2 April 2007
(6) Officials to announce details of seal hunt, CTV, 28 March 2007
(7) Seal hunting, Wikipedia
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