In Horizon, the final book from the acclaimed environmental writer, Barry Lopez, who left us on Christmas Day 2020, we are taken on a trip he made in 2012 to the Canadian High Arctic. Lopez was working as a guide and lecturer on a Canadian ecotourism vessel, where he would rise at 5:00 a.m. to sit with a cup of coffee on the ship’s open deck to observe birds. A couple of passengers had the same habit and the three of them would look through their binoculars together. The vessel was bound for Bellot Strait, the narrow waterway that demarcates the most northern shore of mainland Canada. To get there, they headed into Peel Sound where Lopez had told the passengers there was a good chance of seeing polar bears. As the boat rounded into the sound, the strangeness of what was before him hit. Peel Sound is a waterway that should not be easily navigable without an icebreaker, even in summer when ‘it’s always heavily jammed with multiyear ice.’ Lopez noticed the quiet that had descended upon him and the two other birdwatchers: ‘They were staring blankly into the sound,’ he wrote. ‘Three cups of coffee steamed on the small shelf in front of us. I knew this older man and woman had read as much Arctic history as I had, and now I realised what had made them silent. There was not a single ice floe in the waters ahead. Not a scrap of ice. We saw numerous seals and bearded seals swimming there, but the polar bears we’d been certain we’d find hunting those seals were nowhere to be seen. Their hunting platforms were gone.’
We all know this silence of deep grief. The sadness of witnessing a dying world and then the elation when we do glimpse some vestiges of wildness. I can’t help but imagine those seals against the larger picture of melting ice and the slow but eventual disappearance of the Arctic’s apex predators. It is around this time of year – from late February to mid-March – that seals relocate to the ice in the southern limit of their range to breed and give birth. This is also when my thoughts turn to them and I wonder how many will make it, how many will drown, how many will be slaughtered. As someone who grew up in Canada, the photos of these annual hunts are ingrained in me. I don’t need to describe them here, as most of us are familiar with the photos of hunters and celebrities standing on blood-stained ice in Canada’s maritime provinces.
Seal hunting was always news and it pitted conservationists who wanted to see the banning of these hunts against fishermen who claimed the animals, whose diet is fish and invertebrates, decimated their stocks. It also pitted indigenous people against anti-hunting activists. As a child, I knew deep in my bones that the commercial and industrial killing of animals for profit was not the same as subsistence hunting. The Inuit people of northern Canada have been hunting seals for 4,000 years and have traditionally used every part of the animal for their survival, their rituals, their art-making practices, their clothing, their sources of light and heat, their food and their myths. They are connected deeply to them. Theirs has not been a relationship of greed and exploitation – but rather one of co-dependence and respect.
The non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) claims that they have always advocated against commercial seal-hunting, while respecting the needs of Inuit and indigenous people. However, in a Guardian article from 2017, Irena Knezevic, an associate professor in communication, culture and health at Ottawa’s Carleton University is quoted as saying, ‘I do think organisations like Peta, Ifaw and Sea Shepherd have greatly profited from the shocking and spectacular images of seals being clubbed to death… It is disingenuous to say the commercial hunt does not affect or impact the Indigenous hunt. It does.’ This is where it gets complicated.
In 1983, Greenpeace, among other groups, managed to convince the European Union to ban sealskin products made from the white coat of harp seal pups. Female harp seals give birth around the end of February to their lily-white offspring, and commercial hunters would spend a frenzied two to three weeks killing these ‘whitecoats’ before their fur turned a mottled grey-brown. Even though Inuit hunters have never harvested ‘whitecoats’, this ban destroyed small-scale indigenous hunting operations that provided sealskin to government officers who auctioned them at international markets. This income then allowed Inuit people – whose traditional livelihoods had already been destroyed through European settlement – to buy fuel and supplies to keep their communities going. By 1985, the market for sealskin had collapsed and the average yearly income for an Inuit seal hunter in Resolute Bay fell from $53,000 (£31,000) to $1,000 (£580). The provincial government of the Northwest Territories estimated that nearly 18 out of 20 Inuit villages lost almost 60 percent of their communities’ income. Suicide rates among Canada’s Inuit are now the highest in the world. In 2014, Greenpeace openly apologised to the Inuit of Canada for their role in causing them ‘years of grief, hardship and frustration’.
The Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, who is best known outside of Canada for her collaborations with Björk and the Kronos Quartet, is an outspoken critic of conservationists who do not see the cultural significance of seal hunting to her community. In her acceptance speech at the 2014 Polaris Music Awards, she famously shouted ‘Fuck PETA’ as a protest against what she saw as insensitive overreach by people who are ignorant of her culture. The terrible irony of this argument is that her people have been stewarding the land in Northern Canada for millennia and it is not they who are responsible for the declining numbers of polar bears and seals and the melting of the ice. The real killers in this story are rampant consumerism, non-stop industrial growth, increasing carbon emissions, industrial farming, Big Ag, Big Oil and every extractive industry. We can argue about the ethics of hunting seals – and I believe these arguments are important and necessary. Yet, I sometimes feel that these conversations are a distraction to the real tragedy.
Towards the end of Horizon, Lopez finds himself doing fieldwork in Antarctica as part of a scientific party. He would spend his evenings wandering and on one such evening in the Taylor Valley, he came across a mummified seal. The animal had clearly died there. While no one knows why some seals find themselves inland only to starve to death, one hypothesis that made sense was told to him by an Inuit hunter. It was the idea of a ‘water sky’, dark patches on the ice, often occurring because of cloud cover, that could confuse a young or inexperienced seal into thinking that such a darkened spot might be open water which is where they would find their food source. In these extreme places, life and death are so perfectly balanced, their harmonies with each other evolved over millennia so fragile, that one small misstep can be the difference between dying and surviving. Although ‘water skies’ have always existed and animals have always succumbed in nature’s balancing act especially in extreme landscapes, it is because of humans that these seals and their predators, the polar bear, are finding themselves without ice, without food, without a future. Yes, we do need to stop the commercial hunting of seals and in doing so, we will hopefully stop the exploitation of these animals for their fur. But we also need to protect those very people whose cultures and livelihoods have been so entwined with the cycles of the seasons and with the life and death of the animals they live among and rely on for survival. As Tanya Tagaq says, ‘The world is burning up for a reason, because people have totally forgotten how to respect the earth, the land, ourselves and each other. The idea some people can’t comprehend is that we [Inuit] might have the key to how to respect animals and how to respect the land. We’re all on the same side here.’ Shouldn’t all of us be on the side of the animals, the ice, and the people who have always lived among and cared for them?
Call to action: sign a petition calling for an end to the Canadian commercial seal hunt here.
Joanna Pocock won the 2018 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for her book, ‘Surrender’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), a hybrid work of memoir and environmental writing exploring relationships between the land and the people of the American West. French and Spanish editions have recently been published. She was awarded the 2021 Arts Foundation Fellowship in Environmental Writing and teaches Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, London.