When I got married in 2013, we replaced the shark fin soup on the banquet menu in favour for a more sustainable alternative. It was a no-brainer for me, to not support an industry that is driven by cruel finning practices. Some would argue that it is a traditional Chinese dish with a cultural value deeply connected to celebration that extends beyond the food itself. To me, it was an unnecessary display of prestige, a status symbol afforded by the undue suffering of an animal.
Caring for animal welfare is generally something I applaud, but sometimes our attitudes need to be checked. The movement to restrict seal hunting resulting EU ban on importing seal products in 1980’s was a win for animal activists. But, even though subsistence hunting was still allowed for the Inuit, the repercussions of these events can still be felt today in the north. With the fall in demand for seal skin products, career hunters lost a way to support their families. Suicide rates rose to a record high, peaking in the early 2000’s, at 11 times the national average.
Despite my opposition to shark finning, my views on seal hunting are quite different. Here’s why:
- Seal hunting by the Inuit is about survival. The Inuit have thrived for millennia on a barren land too cold for crops to grow by hunting seal, which is a local, sustainable, and affordable source of nutrition. Even though there are grocery stores up north now, groceries are prohibitively expensive to many living there.
- The whole animal is used. Meat provides food and furs are used to make clothing to stay dry and warm.
- Given that the current reality in the northern territories is a resource-based economy, subsistence hunting is not sufficient for survival. There is an income gap in Canada between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, and this gap is widest up north. In Nunavut, where the gap is largest, Indigenous people earn 61% less than their non-indigenous peers. Many families depend on sales of seal skin products to earn a living. Nunavut won an exemption to the EU import ban in 2015, but the negative publicity around seal hunting continues to make it challenging for hunters to earn a living this way.
- Perhaps due to this tradition of sustainable hunting, only adult seals are hunted and none of the hunted species are on endangered species lists.
If these reasons are not enough to persuade, consider this. How is Inuit country food different from the beef, pork, chicken that we eat in the rest of Canada? And for vegetarians out there, it is important to remember vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice that is a luxury that is not afforded to everyone (e.g. cultural and environmental context is important here – it’s much harder to get fresh vegetable up north). It is all fine and good to care about the welfare of animals, but equally, if not more important to care about the welfare of people.
It’s uplifting to see northerners defend about the cultural significance of seal hunting. In the CBC documentary, Angry Inuk, Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril shares how the anti-sealing movement have impacted families in the north. Often, policies are made affecting the north by southerners who, well-intentioned as they may be, do not really understand living in the north, so it is crucial that we hear it directly from those who live in the north.
It’s equally uplifting when I see Chinese people speaking out about how a traditionally used luxury ingredient with little nutritional value and produced at great environmental costs, does not define our culture.
In both the cases of Sharks and Seals, where questions of cultural identity and animal welfare drive strong emotions, it is possible to have conversations about solutions without being racist or discriminatory. The challenge is to approach the discussion with a large dose of cultural humility. If cultural values change in response to the world around us, what can be said of our cultural identities? I’ll leave that for a future post.