A Europe-wide ban on the trade of seal fur and products made from it is likely to be overturned this Thursday in a dispute that is setting environmental activists and scientists against fur traders and Inuit from Canada and Greenland.
The Fur Institute of Canada has led the legal fight to overturn the European Union’s 2010 ban on trade in seal products, including their skins, meat and fat. Since the institution of the ban, pelts that sold for £60 (about $90) in 2007 are now worth only about £6 (about $9).
Seal oil is used in omega-3 capsules. Among other uses, seal pelts are used to make the sporran, a pouch that is a traditional part of male Scottish Highland dress. Another plaintiff challenging the ban is indeed one of Scotland’s largest suppliers of sporrans, William E. Scott & Son, who argues that “the sporran-making industry has been completely turned over by the EU.”
Rob Cahill of the Fur Institute goes so far as to contend that ending the ban is necssary for “maintaining a balance between seals and fish.” Fishermen in Scotland have been eager to see the ban overturned on the grounds that the growth of the seal population has depleted cod stocks around the Orkney and Shetland islands. As one fisherman tells the Independent:
People think seals are nice and cuddly, but they’ll have your hand off if you get too close. I’m fishing salmon from April to mid-September and seals are a problem every day. They attack my fish and they attack me.
Certainly the ban has been effective. Since it was passed, the number of seals killed in commercial hunting in Canada (where most seal hunting occurs) has fallen dramatically. 40,000 seals were killed in 2011, a significant drop from the 354,000 in 2006.
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director at Humane Society International (HSI), has dismissed the claims that seals are the reason for declining fish stocks as “irrational and absurd.” Noting that “the largest predators of fish are other fish and the last thing anyone should be doing is promoting a seal cull,” Aldworth emphasizes that having “more species in the sea” is to the advantage of the entire marine ecosystem.
Sientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, have also disputed the claim that the seals are to blame for declining fish stocks, pointing out that the seals are being used (just as whales once were) as “scapegoats for overfishing abuses.” “No credible scientific evidence” exists to show that hunting Atlantic Canada’s gray seals can help depleted fish stocks recover. In fact, one Dalhousie University researcher points out that cod actually only comprise a “very small part” of the seals’ diet.
According to the EU, the species of seals currently hunted are “generally not endangered.” The EU instituted the 2010 ban for humanitarian reasons, over concerns about the “animal welfare aspects of the seal hunt” — about methods such as “shooting, netting and clubbing, that can cause avoidable pain and distress.”
Such concerns are highlighted by actor Jude Law in a recent letter to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on behalf of PETA that was sent days after the start of Canada’s annual seal pup slaughter. Law calls on the EU to maintain the ban as “in line with the wishes of compassionate people all around the world, including the majority of European citizens.” He also points out that “even local sentiment is turning, and a lack of markets has led Canadian officials to seriously examine whether the slaughter should end.”
The seals cannot, of course, speak for themselves. We do them wrong, and the ocean’s ecosystem, to blame them for declining fish stocks. But we can stop slaughtering them brutally to use their skins.
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