Seal Summit ends with hope for growing market for Inuit hunters

Inuit hunter Rubin Komangapik and fellow hunter Yoanis Menge hope the worst is behind them.

The couple run Reconseal – a co-op whose name is a game about reconciliation. Based in the Magdalen Islands, Reconseal provides southern Inuit organizations with sealskin and meat so that urban Inuit can access sealskins and traditional foods, a term encompassing traditional staple foods. such as seal meat, arctic char and caribou.

Along the way, the two hunters teach each other cross-cultural hunting skills and exchange worldviews.

“Traditional food, on the whole, is bliss for us,” Komangapik explained. “When we don’t eat our traditional food, we eat empty and sad animals. When we eat traditional foods, we eat free and happy animals.

“We are what we eat.”

The sealing industry was rocked in 2009 by a European Union ban on seal products and an increasingly negative public perception of sealing in Western markets, including Canada. .

The seal hunt has been targeted by numerous animal rights organizations like PETA, Greenpeace and the Humane Society, which have campaigned to ban commercial seal hunting outright, with the exception of the “hunting of subsistence” for indigenous communities. But since the Seal Summit held in St. John’s, Newfoundland on Nov. 8-9, which focused on the future of seals and the seal hunt, the two have renewed hope for the industry. seal hunting.

“We are at a turning point now,” Menge said. “We see great things in the future.”

The Government of Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are “totally committed” to supporting the sealing industry based on the best available science, said Adwaite Tiwary, Director of Trade and access to international markets from DFO, to the National Observer of Canada.

There is a strong market in Asia, particularly China, and Komangapik and Menge hope seal meat will eventually become a local staple.

But Tiwary acknowledges that changing public perception of western seal markets remains a challenge, even in Canada. There are trade barriers and “branding” issues, Tiwary said. Seal meat is not regularly sold in restaurants and stores, for example.

Jenny McQueen of harpseals.org argues that commercial sealing should still be banned.

“The federal government is trying to confuse commercial industry with Indigenous subsistence hunters,” McQueen said. “We are all for the subsistence hunting of indigenous people, but we find that it is no longer honored.”

However, Komangapik says commercial hunting is a subsistence activity for many Inuit hunters because without the commercial market, many hunters cannot afford the gasoline and equipment needed to hunt, especially in the North.

“It’s 2022, and the way I see the sealing industry, it’s all subsistence hunting now,” Komangapik said.

“We don’t live in igloos anymore, you know what I mean? »

Komangapik was reluctant to denigrate animal rights activism, but he said stop-the-seal activists had a different philosophy than people living on the land.

“They love seal the wrong way,” Komangapik said.

There is a problem of overpopulation of harp seals which is impacting their ecosystem, according to DFO. Seal populations have increased steadily since the middle of the century. The harp seal population has grown from two million in the 1970s to 7.6 million in 2019, the largest in recorded history, according to a report by DFO’s Atlantic Seal Task Force .

Adult harp seals can weigh up to 800 pounds, according to Komangapik, and they are predators whose primary food source is fish. The Seal Task Force report indicates that in 2014, total prey consumption was approximately 3.2 million metric tons. That same year, the total commercial catch in Newfoundland and Labrador was 256,000 tonnes.

Seals are often thought of as the main predator in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but Komangapik says that’s wrong: humans are the main predator.

“There is nothing wrong with nature, there is just an imbalance,” he said.

Seal hunting is a way to feed the ocean and bring it back into balance, Komangapik said. It’s what Komangapik calls making a circle because humans are part of the cycle of life and we play a vital role in maintaining the balance of the ocean ecosystem, which has seen seal numbers increase while fish populations are declining exponentially.

“We are a really intelligent creature and we should start thinking that way.”

Animal rights organizations argue that seals are not overcrowded and that sealing is cruel, unnecessary and should be banned once and for all.

But Komangapik and Menge both agree that it’s easy to separate humans from nature when they live in cities. It’s a whole different reality when someone is in the field.

“We are nature: it’s something we tend to forget just because we can turn on a light like turning on the sun,” Komangapik said.

— With files by Karyn Pugliese

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canadian National Observer

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