Seal hunting: ethical, free range food source or morally reprehensible practice?

by Ngaio Hotte

And why would it matter to an economist? It may seem strange to launch an economics blog with an ethical question, but public perceptions regarding the seal hunt have strongly influenced the economics of trade in Canadian seal products.

Since 1977, when French actress Brigitte Bardot first drew global attention to the Canadian seal hunt with a dramatic protest, the Canadian sealing industry has been the subject of ethical scrutiny by global consumers. In 1983, the former European Commission (EC) responded to public pressure with a ban on juvenile (or “whitecoat”) seal products. The EC previously imported nearly 75% of all Canadian seal products. Pressure on the Canadian government led to a ban on the harvesting of juvenile seals (“whitecoats” and “bluebacks”) in 1987 and subsequent implementation of the Marine Mammal Regulations. But public concerns about seal hunting did not subside and in 2009, the Council of the European Union (EU) outlawed the import and sale of all seal products. The Russian Federation followed suit with a similar ban on harp seal products in late 2011. The EU ban was challenged by Canada and Norway through the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2013 but was upheld by the WTO.

But social values in Canada and the USA are shifting in ways that may cause seal products to be viewed more favourably. While the bans have been directed to stem the trade of seal pelts, seals are also taken for their meat in many remote, coastal communities across Atlantic Canada – a fact which is receiving particular attention amidst recent public concerns about “ethical” and “sustainable” food choices. The new sustainable food movement, inspired in part by books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and movies like Food Inc., has increased awareness about where food comes from, how it is grown/raised/harvested and who grows/raises/kills it. Some even claim that the movement has inspired a new generation of hunters after a long decline in its popularity. A recent article from the Toronto Star explores whether seal meat is actually a more ethical and environmentally sustainable food choice than other alternatives because the seals are born and live wild and receive no chemical or hormonal treatments.

Could the salvation of Canada’s sealing industry lie, ironically, in a groundswell of public awareness similar to that which caused its near demise?