Pretending to know what you're talking about

Remember Chrissy Hynde? Maybe if you're old enough to have some Pretenders CDs in your collection. Otherwise, probably not. But she has enough name recognition to convince the editors of Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper to let her weigh in on that most inevitable sign of spring, the rhetorical war over the seal hunt that dominates the news on the country's east coast. You might think that op-ed essayists for a major daily newspaper, even those relegated to web-only contributor status, would bring something more than musical fame to the subject. You would be wrong.

Hynde brings precisely no special expertise to the debate, which involves a few thousand seasonally out-of-work fishermen and women taking to the ice floes to kill a few hundred thousand, mostly juvenile, harp seals, often in ways that would warrant at least a PG rating, if not something more restrictive. The tagline on her Globe op-ed contribution says only that "Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders is a long-time animal rights activist and supporter of PETA."

I'm not taking issue with her argument that much of the annual seal cull (or slaughter, if that's your perspective) is cruel and unnecessary. It surely is. But a lot of what passes for animal "husbandry" on this planet would turn the stomachs of most people who weren't raised on a farm. The only way to approach the issue free of hypocrisy is as a vegetarian.

Which Hynde is. Alas,"vegetarian" isn't sufficient qualification in my books, not when the subject matter is one of the most emotional and controversial in Canada. Consider, as the say, the facts of the case.

The sealers are not rich bastards, they're just taking advantage of the penchant of the genuinely rich for fur. And as anyone familiar with seal fur, will tell you, it's particularly nice fur. (Whether that's ethical is not a simple question.) They and their opponents are both guilty of embarrassing misrepresentation of the natural history and ecology of the matter. The sealers, for example, have in the past argued that the cull is necessary to control the population of the seals in order to save the cod. This is absurd, of course. The cod were doing fine long before anyone was clubbing seals.

Animal-rights groups (PETA, IFAW), meanwhile, have frequently used the specter of an "endangered species" to bolster their arguments. But a quick look at the IUCN Red List entry for Pagophilus groenlandicus turns up a "low risk" designation. According to some of the better estimates, the northwest Atlantic population, which includes the Canadian seals in question, numbers 4-6.4 million.

So from a scientific perspective, there really isn't cause for concern. This is nothing like the situation with northern right whale, of which only 300-400 remain. When a young male washes up dead on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it's not just a sad thing, it's worrisome from an ecological point of view.

Like Hynde, I have an opinion on the wisdom of the seal cull. As someone with a degree in marine biology who has worked with seals (briefly, with harbor seals, in captivity), I believe my opinion is worth more than her. But even I don't think I'm qualified to inflame sentiment by taking that opinion to the national media.

I reserve my real opprobrium for the Globe and Mail, however. Why did its editors think Hynde's opinions matter? As one Globe commenter pointed out, this is a serious matter for Canada's international image.

Aside from Nelly Furtado and Avril Lavigne videos on TV, the only reference to Canada I've come across in European mass media are graphic anti-seal hunt commercials. This one issue - a small industry compared to others in Canada - is colouring our whole nation in the rest of the world's eyes. Many Europeans think, "Canada? Ew - seal hunt." Just something for folks back home to consider.

It's also no small matter for entire Inuit communities that havein the past been devastated by European boycotts inspired by Hynde's PETA predecessors.

Remember Brigitte Bardot?

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I am not especially opposed to 'harvesting' seals for their fur (as long as it is not endangering the species). We 'harvest' lots of species (cows, sheep, deer, fish, ...) for food and other purposes.

But, honestly, is there no more humane method of doing it than beating them to death?

By Benjamin Franz (not verified) on 04 Apr 2007 #permalink

remember chrissie hynde is like saying remember elvis costello or sting? that's insulting. she may be a bit left leaning in her animal right fights but she wrote a helluva lot of great songs....

An interesting article. Just for the record IFAW is not an animal rights group. IFAW is an animal welfare organisation and we do not claim that harp seals are 'endangered'.

I have not heard one group claim that seals are endangered.
Quite to the contrary, as the numbers say the opposite of what you are representing in your article.

An Marine Biology degree does not necessarily give you compassion, obviously.

BF - I believe the reason for clubbing is that it doesn't damage the pelt and doesn't need special equipment and training.

Erica of IFAW insists her organization does not claim harp seals are endangered. No, not in so many words, but this from the IFAW website comes awfully close:

the current approach to managing the seal hunt risks seriously depleting the harp seal population by as much as 50 to 70 percent over the next 15 years.

Which is unlikely to be true, the large population numbers at hand. Although, if current thinning ice conditions worse, hunting would become a problem.

I am dismayed to see you attack Chrissie Hynde for voicing her very thoughtful opinion on the commercial seal hunt, by saying she lacks the expertise to comment.

Apparently in your opinion, anyone without your 'bachelors degree in marine biology' does not have the ability to research an issue and form an opinion worthy of anyone's consideration.

Strangely, as a freelance communications consultant who has never observed the commercial seal hunt, you do believe you possess the expertise to weigh in on the economics of the sealing industry and the animal welfare aspects of the hunt.

Whether they are for or against it, every person on this planet has a right to comment on the commercial seal hunt. And as a person who has observed this cruel slaughter firsthand for several years, I am pleased to see the Globe and Mail post an opinion that supports the views of the overwhelming majority of Canadians - that this hunt should be ended for good.

I always find it interesting when people who claim to oppose the commercial seal hunt do nothing but criticize the tactics and "qualifications" of others involved in the campaign to bring such an atrocity to an end. It's far easier to sit back and criticize then to get up from your computer and fight for your principles.

How typical that the last paragraph of your article refers to Inuit hunters.

I do not possess a degree in marine biology and have not worked briefly with harbour seals in captivity, but my painstaking research of this issue has educated me to two facts of which you seem to be oblivious:

(1) the commercial seal hunt and Inuit subsistence hunts are completely separate and apart.

The commercial seal hunt is a large-scale industrial slaughter which targets the young of the species primarily for fur. The commercial seal hunt is conducted by men of European descent, not aboriginals, unless of course you count Labrador MP Todd Russell, the "token native" used to further confuse the distinction between commercial and subsistence hunts.

(2) Inuit seal products are exempt from European bans

You also seem to be unaware that products from Inuit subsistence hunts are exempt from European bans, which include products from harp and hooded seals - which are not commercially hunted by Inuit people.

Something else that qualifies me to pass judgment on this hunt is personal experience. I am currently in western Newfoundland bearing witness to the slaughter of these seal pups in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Where exactly are you as you pass judgment on others for making so-called unqualified comments on the issue?

Notably, the same department that produced the latest harp seal population estimate (Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is the same one that told us the cod stocks were doing just fine when they had been fished down to 1% of their historic levels. Just about every fish stock managed by DFO has suffered severe population reductions - some are now commercially extinct.

If you take the time to read it, you will see the latest DFO pup production survey for harp seals relied heavily on visual counts from helicopters, and surveyed less than two percent of the breeding site. Not surprisingly, the population is provided in a range of more than 2 million. Leading biologists claim Canada's seal hunt management plan is reckless and poses a threat to the very survival of the population.

According to DFO, there are 5.4 million harp seals off Canada's east coast. As someone who has flown over the entire area each and every year for the past nine years, I can tell you harp seals are simply not there in those numbers. This year, the DFO is estimating up to 100 percent mortality for the pups born in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence - up to 261,000 may have died because of the bad ice conditions. Of course, DFO has not estimated the mortality for the northern Gulf where there are also very few pups to be found, or the waters northeast of Newfoundland, where Environment Canada says ice cover is at a record low.

In the past ten years, between one third and one half of all harp seal pups born in the northwest Atlantic have been slaughtered between Canada and Greenland. It doesn't take a marine biologist to see this is having a devastating impact on the population. Add to that the impacts of global warming on the ice habitat of these seals, and we should all be concerned about the future of the population.

We can't control the impacts of global warming in the immediate future - but we can choose to stop the commercial seal hunt.

I know this is an old thread but the information here, www.thesealfishery.com, seems much more realistic then the gibberish from these flakes like Aldworth. I would like to know what "Leading biologists" she is talking about, Where does DFO claim 100% mortality and ask why the uproar about the southern gulf, the smallest congregating area of harp seals, when the Northern gulf and the largest area, the front experienced heavier ice conditions then any over the past 20 years. By the way, no large amount of seals carcasses were found from some fantastical mass death. In fact it was shown that many seals went to land to birth their pups as they have done many times in the past when there was poor ice. Nice try though Rebecca. By the way, Bridget, for someone who has supposedly "extensively researched" the subject, your Web site contains a multitude of basic information errors. Ones which would not be made by someone with teh most basic of knowledge on the subject.